How did that person get to be a leader?

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Self Leadership
How did that person get to be a leader?

As an HR manager, it’s amazing what people will tell you. Sometimes when a promotion notice was posted, employees would seek me out and ask, “How did that happen???”

It was particularly perplexing when the person in question was observed to be more talk than action. Or they were unreliable in making good on commitments. Maybe they were known for creating more work than necessary.

Who gets promoted?

I would get questions about how a specific person got a job with so much responsibility. I often thought to myself, “Because he or she is willing to do it when no one else is. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.” Depending on the organization, there comes a time when the peer group at a certain level is not healthy. I’ve seen this. It’s almost like the higher they go, the worse they get at being team players.

While in corporate America I’ve been in discussions about who would make a good leader. We identified people with real leadership potential. And yet, they had already made it known they didn’t want anything to do with leading. They didn’t have the stomach for what it would take to work with troublesome would-be peers.

Why some leaders are so self-absorbed

One theory I have is what I call “The Jersey Shore” theory. I admit to never having seen an entire episode of the once popular reality TV show. But it occurs to me that at a certain level in the organization the same dynamics kick in. It’s as if you are a reality show star. You are so insulated. You view yourself as the center of the universe in a contrived environment.

On more than one occasion I tried to save a leader from him- or herself. I tried to help them understand how their approaches or messages were received. I wasn’t trying to talk them out of a decision, only the “how.” I observed pouting. I was ignored. Once I was verbally abused. You just can’t save some people from themselves.

What it takes to avoid this self-deception

Master coach Marshall Goldsmith wrote a book called, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” I remember applying his concept while coaching a particular dysfunctional leader. She regularly alienated just about everyone. She said she must have been doing okay if she got to the level she achieved. Her heels were dug in. She saw nothing to change. What Marshall’s concept would suggest is that she got promoted to her current level despite her flaws, not because of them. She couldn’t see that for herself.

As leaders, we must check ourselves. I come back to a component of emotional intelligence. To avoid self-deception, let’s look at empathy. You have to ask yourself if you are having the effect you are hoping for when you work with others. The empathy comes in when you look at your impact on others as compared to your intention. If this frequently doesn’t match up, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror, get some feedback, get a coach, or maybe even join the Lead Change Group!

What do you do to avoid leadership self-deception?
Photo Credit: Gratisography

About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers: http://www.reimaginework.com/LCG/  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Susan Mazza  |  08 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Great article Mary. There are unfortunately far too many people in positions of leadership who don’t actually want to lead. A promotion is often the only way to reward people who do great work but it does such a disservice to everyone.

Ultimately I think the way to avoid self deception as a leader is to recognize that your people – their attitude and performance – are a reflection of your leadership. Then there is no where to hide! But, of course, you have to want to actually be a leader vs operate purely from technical skill and positional authority!

Mary C. Schaefer  |  08 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi Susan. I had omitted that aspect, “far too many people in positions of leadership who don’t actually want to lead.” That’s a really good point.

Most of the people I’m describing are happy to be in leadership positions, with the authority that comes with the position, without having the skills. I think your point about people being in leadership without wanting to lead, in my experience, speaks to those who take the position because they don’t want things to get worse. It takes real stamina to try to lead among peers who are not qualified, but willing.

I also love your point about looking at those who look to you for leadership – their attitudes and performance. Indeed they are a reflection. You get what you give (or don’t give…) Thanks for commenting!!

M.Scott  |  10 Apr 2016  |  Reply

I agree with this “Jersey Shorr” theory for some who don’t want to lead.

However it is my belief that many who are resistent to lead still do so because they want to make a difference after years of witness to bad leaders. In these cases I believe that the “resistent” leader has the best possible motive for taking charge as an advocate for change.

Perhaps they are less common than I care to know.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  10 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi M. Scott. I agree completely! M. Scott: “However it is my belief that many who are resistant to lead still do so because they want to make a difference after years of witness to bad leaders. In these cases I believe that the “resistant” leader has the best possible motive for taking charge as an advocate for change.” – So true. I’ve seen it.

My only point with the Jersey Shore comparison is that it is one explanation as to why we have some leaders who are not qualified and think that they are. I think the propensity for this dynamic depends on the organization and the culture.

Thanks for commenting!

Mary C. Schaefer  |  08 Apr 2016  |  Reply

For those of you interested in going deeper into “The Jersey Shore” theory of management, see this post of mine from 2010. http://www.reimaginework.com/whats-the-situation/

John E. Smith  |  08 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Mary:

First, I confess to the world that I have never STARTED to watch an episode of “Jersey Shores”, let alone made it all the way through. I am a popular culture deviant ….

Second, I really enjoyed your thinking around the issue of leaders who aren’t … people who have somehow moved into positions of authority and responsibility, but do not have the talents, skills, or resources to adequately fill their role. Corporate America is chock full of examples of this phenomenon.

It reminds of the Peter Principle (Lawrence J. Peter) of many years ago, where a person who was competent at one level continued to be promoted until reaching a level where they were incompetent … and then often left to fester and infect others.

I once provided leadership development in a corporation where the exponential growth over a decade had resulted in hundreds of newly-created management positions from front-line supervisor up to the vice-presidential level. Most of these positions had been filled by internal candidates who were experts at the technical processes and products of the organization … and most of them had little or no background in managing and leading people.

Imagine your lady who thought because she was in a leadership role, that she knew how to do it. Now multiple her by hundreds … almost everyone in a management role at that organization could look around and see three things:

1) Everyone else in management came from the same background as me.

2) No examples of effectively leadership or even very good management are visible.

3) The corporate structure accepts this leadership environment as “OK”.

That place held some frustrations for me:).

Thanks as always for a thoughtful and enjoyable glimpse of leadership wisdom:)


Mary C. Schaefer  |  09 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Love your response, John. Yes, I think the Peter Principle is sound. Your experience with the corporation you mention is both amazing and all too common. It’s why Scott Adams hits home with his Dilbert cartoons. Your example also speaks to the “contrived environment” I mention, where the outcome you describe may not be questioned, except by someone like you, from the outside, and with the ability for critical thinking.

I also think that we get the result you describe because really smart people who could lead limit their advancement, knowing what they would be getting into in their particular culture or environment, which is so unfortunate.

Hopefully, this makes those of us who do get it, and have a passion and commitment to great leadership to take yet another step to make things better.

Thanks for weighing, John. I always count on you. Mary

John E. Smith  |  11 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Mary – thanks for your kind comments.

Another thing that occurs to me about folks who believe their skills are better than they actually are. I am seeing an increasing number of articles around this issue – mostly pointing out that people in general tend to view themselves as more (smarter, effective, better, and so on) than they actually are. Makes sense that managers would also fall prey to this human condition.

After all, there’s some truth to the observation that ” … all the children are above average”.

This probably connects to the Fundamental Attribution Error, where we attribute own our shortcomings to circumstances, other people’s failures, or something else external to our own skills, while someone else is just “stupid” or “inept”, indicating a basic failure of competency. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error

Here’s a few citations for the Manager superiority illusion thing:

Illusory Superiority (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusory_superiority

David Brent effect: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/9241721/The-David-Brent-effect-managers-think-they-are-better-than-they-are.html

Your posts are always such fun to digest and kick around:)


Mary C. Schaefer  |  11 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Thanks John. I think you are onto something with the “fundamental attribution error.” I can’t wait to dig in to the links you included.

I immediately want to the link on the David Brent effect and saw the photo of Ricky Gervais from The Office. Do you know I could not watch The Office (only tried the U.S. version) because I found it too real and it made me very sad.

Here’s to real, character-based leaders! (Trying to end on a positive note :)

Chery Gegelman  |  13 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Great post Mary!

Your post caused my brain to flash pictures of people and situations like the leader you described. There is a huge difference between being able to drive a result through fear and intimidation and being able to influence a result through great leadership.

The first destroys people, organizational health and eventually organizational growth. The second builds all of those things.

You ended your post asking how we avoid leadership self-deception:
1. Having clear core values.
2. Taking time to reflect and own, and adjust behavior as needed.
3. Constantly investing in personal growth.
4. Inviting feedback from others.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  13 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Thanks Chery! Those are excellent tips for avoiding self-deception.

BTW, I love your newest post at LinkedIn. Great stories. Very related.

Thanks for commenting! M

Kevin Yeates  |  27 Apr 2016  |  Reply


Excellent article. I maybe foolishly presuming that your final question, “What do you do to avoid leadership self-deception?” was not rhetorical so I thought I would answer it.

I insisted on a 360 degree assessment each year. Before receiving the results I had a “chat” with myself to reinforce that whatever the results may be, the results are accurate. I vowed to accept them as accurate and to put together a personal action plan to address my lowest scores.

While I do believe self-assessment is important, my experience has been that it tends to be inaccurate. I was always able to fully explain to myself why I had taken the action I took and why it was the best action. Unfortunately the staff did not always agree. I learned to put more credence in their assessments than my own.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  02 May 2016  |  Reply

Hi Kevin. I skimmed one of your last sentences and read it as, “My experience has been that (360 degree) assessment tends to be inaccurate.” I was completely ready to agree with you :) I say that because I have had to help unravel sometimes contradictory 360 feedback for others.

I think self-assessment and assessment from others is both needed. I found 360 most useful for myself when a trusted colleague (who didn’t always agree with me) helped me interpret it. I have received some priceless gems in that way.

Bottom line you make a VERY important point: Versus your own assessment, “the staff did not always agree. I learned to put more credence in their assessments than my own.” Granted there are some people that you are never going to please, but the point you remind me of is that we CAN be easier on ourselves sometimes because we know our intent. All that other people experience is the impact. They don’t necessarily know our intent. We can’t take that for granted.

Thank you for the thought-provoking remarks and taking this post even further.

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