Written by: Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester
Gozer: The Choice is made!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Whoa! Ho! Ho! Whoa-oa!
Gozer: The Traveller has come!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Nobody choosed anything!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Did you choose anything?
Dr. Egon Spengler: No.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Did YOU?
Winston Zeddemore: My mind is totally blank.
Dr. Peter Venkman: I didn't choose anything...
Dr. Raymond Stantz: I couldn't help it. It just popped in there.
Dr. Peter Venkman: What? WHAT "just popped in there?"
Dr. Raymond Stantz: I... I... I tried to think...
Dr. Egon Spengler: LOOK!
Dr. Raymond Stantz: No! It CAN'T be!
Dr. Peter Venkman: What is it?
Dr. Raymond Stantz: It CAN'T be!
Dr. Peter Venkman: What did you DO, Ray?
Winston Zeddemore: Oh, s***!
Dr. Raymond Stantz: It's the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Just like in the Ghostbusters dialogue above, our visions of leaders just “pop” in there, creating leaders based upon leader prototypes each of us has generated inside our own minds.
When I begin teaching a segment on leadership, I often ask my students to share personal leadership influences. There is substantial research noting that context is a major determinant of one’s leadership impressions. There are also some trends that come and go based on the general business climate and press coverage, but often, students share stories of fathers, mothers, siblings, and other family members along with coaches and religious leaders.
These implicit leadership theories (or ILTs) predispose us to accept certain types of leaders and reject others, and will color our ratings of leader performance. So why does this matter? Don’t we all expect our leaders to do great things?
Well, just as Ray thought the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man could never inflict harm on people, many of us ignore how harmful our ILTs can be. How could our “ideal” leader harm us? If we expect our leaders to enact transformational change, be directive, and fix all our problems, we end up disappointed and disillusioned. If we think leaders can only be successful by directing others’ behavior, we fail to support leaders who take a more participative, integrative approach. Even more dangerous, if we only accept leaders that look or sound a specific way or espouse a specific credo, we lose out on potential leaders who could challenge our way of thinking and deliver better results.
So what can we do? These ILTs are deeply embedded in our expectations of leadership. But we can address them head on by first understanding what our ILTs do. In one exercise we present in our training sessions, we ask participants to draw what leadership looks like to them. These pictures can reshape what people want or expect from leaders – focusing on the behaviors and outcomes instead of traits. We can also expose younger generations to leaders from all different backgrounds and try to balance the messages they receive so they can all see themselves as potential leaders.
And we can ask ourselves whether our chosen leaders are just reinforcing our ILTs as we accept their performance, or we can try to set aside our biases and judge performance against an accepted standard.
Joseph De Maistra coined the phrase “each nation gets the government it deserves.” Implicit leadership theories dictate individuals often get the leaders they conceive based upon their experiences. We can challenge these imprints by highlighting the wide array of leadership behaviors and styles that are effective in any given situation.