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‘No Victims’ Leadership: The Road Out of Hell

We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement and where everyone has a grievance. C.S. Lewis

Welcome to hell. Angry voters, disengaged workers and aggrieved protestors rule the day. Increasingly we are a society routinely exaggerating our grievances, joining partisan tribes, throwing stones at oppositional groups and ‘de-authorizing’ leadership: find pain, assign blame. It is all part of a decades-long trend of rejecting traditional authority and entrenched institutions – too often found to be inept, elitist and even corrupt. It leaves today’s leaders challenged by the growing negativity of ‘un-leadable’ constituents best described as the victim class. Leaders, navigating a more informed, transparent world filled with higher stakeholder expectations, face the growing prospect of themselves becoming victims of this victim uprising.

Nowhere is the carnage of the victim revolt more evident than the animus toward “elites” in the current Presidential election. Bernie Sanders has succeeded enormously with “income inequality” victims who direct their resentment toward greedy Wall Street elites they contend have squandered jobs and the economy. Donald Trump animates working class victims who accuse intellectual and Washington elites of political-correctness, immigration and trade policies that have left them unemployed, underemployed and unprotected – even scorned. Hillary Clinton’s most ardent supporters are in two victim camps. In one are certain older women who claim victimization by powerful, elitist men. In the other, blacks who claim white privilege places them at systemic disadvantage. Ted Cruz’s greatest success is with white evangelicals who claim oppression by secular, liberal intellectuals who impugn their faith and chip away at religious freedom.

Victimization’s anger is the fire political leaders opportunistically stoke to empower and advance themselves.

Similarly in business the 70 percent of workers who say they are not engaged at work often lament their talents and creativity are victimized by authoritarian, arrogant and un-inviting leaders. Millennials – today’s largest workforce segment – especially abhor dictatorial leadership. Meanwhile, older managers feel victimized by younger workers demanding flexible hours, more say in decisions and preferring unemployment over working in a job or for a boss they hate.

Victimization’s disengagement is the price business leaders pay who prefer compliance and control over commitment.

Elites, Victims and Accountability

Elitism begets victims. As leaders if we find ourselves surrounded by victims, we can safely assume our followers see themselves surrounded by “elitist” leaders. Feelings of disrespect and powerlessness invite aggrieved people into victimhood. Fifty-four percent of workers report not feeling respected by their leaders.

Falling into a state of victimhood is different than simply facing disagreements or opposition. Victimization contributes to the very oppression it abhors: powerlessness. Victims are engaged in a dysfunctional, often symbiotic dance with power-hoarding elites. Unfortunately, powerlessness can become seductively habit-forming because blaming provides an escape from accountability and self-empowerment.

The opposite of victim is accountable. Accountability is the grown-up strength to recognize our role – large or small in our plight; and, to take responsibility to get out, whether we caused it or not. St. Ambrose of Milan famously said, “no one heals himself by wounding others.” Accountability means choosing healing over wounding.

Each of us is victimized in one way or other — some more than others – but taking on the role of victim is a choice, and a very destructive one. And, it is usually enabled by victim-inducing leaders.

Relational Leaders

The proliferation of this victim class now demands leaders make an intentional choice: their approach to leadership can either contribute to or counter the costly mass-producing of victims. The attendant leadership question is this: To what extent is my leadership “victim-inducing” – transforming stakeholders into victims? The alternative is a form of Relational Leadership that addresses real differences and conflict with stakeholders before they metastasize into victims. It requires leaders who build engaged, accountable stakeholder relationships. Engaged employees give 57 percent more effort and are 87 percent less likely to resign. I suggest three keys for ‘victim-eradicating’ Relational Leaders:

First, leaders must embrace a very simple but strategic goal: ‘no victims.’ A mantra to stop production of victims starts by realizing that leaders are the most likely source of victim behavior.

Gallup found that managers account for 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement. A primary role of leadership is to cultivate a culture of ‘no victims’.

Second, is the task of replacing actions that reinforce victim status – especially elitist behavior. In every word, deed and policy Relational Leaders attempt to eliminate elitism: lack of respect, condescending language, practices that reinforce hierarchy, ignoring stakeholder views. American Airlines provides a recent example of relationship-altering change. Pilots there had warned AA’s management in a letter, “We will not remain silent as we witness the rebirth of the toxic culture we fought so hard to eradicate.” A few days later, CEO Doug Parker in an about-face announced a five percent pretax profit sharing arrangement for its 118,000 employees. Parker, who earlier thought he had a winning argument in opposing profit sharing, elaborated: “What I didn’t like was the look we were getting back…We don’t expect this is something that Wall Street will cheer…But long-term investors will see the value that comes from a more engaged workforce. That’s the best competitive advantage a company can get.”

Mark Crowley asserts: “Engagement is a decision of the heart.” ‘No victims’ is about goals and actions directed at the heart.

The third leadership act for “no victims” is empowerment. Empowerment is the antidote to victimhood and requires a shift from “powerful” leader to “empowering” leader. Relational leaders do not let their “needs for advancement and dignity” trump followers’ need to be empowered. While it looks like a passive act of letting go, it is an active act of unrelenting inviting and enabling – that engages stakeholders and engenders responsibility and accountability.

Relational Leadership contrasts greatly with ‘victim leaders’ who garner support through pity, riling-up, condescension and vilifying. It asks repeatedly: not who or what are you against, but who and what are you for, and how are you empowering those shackled by victimhood?

It is the road out of hell.

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