Level-Setting Leadership in the Kardashian Age

From my vantage point, we live in bizarre times, a time no better exemplified than our society’s obsession with the Kardashian clan. Nearly ten years into its unbelievable reign, the Kardashians and their de facto queen, Kim, embody the “more and bigger is better” reality-show-meets-real-life theme of our times. In the age of Kardashians, reality shows, and skewed idol worship, however, most people’s lives are not ever going to live up to what they see on television or social media. These are artifices, set up to make people want and aspire to these lives, but few ever can or will.

Nor is this issue strictly limited to the (in)famous. Social media perpetuates and exacerbates the myth that everyone’s life is grand. As people post pictures of luxury vacations, new acquisitions, fine dining experiences, or even a never-ending stream of nighttime partying-on-the-town, the onlookers can’t help but to compare their own lives to what they’re seeing in these pictures. There’s been plenty written about the issue of “social comparison motive” and its possible negative impact on mood and self esteem, and though I’m not here to say it’s all bad, social comparison motive certainly raises challenges for today’s leaders.

Adjusting Expectations Ain’t As Easy As It Used to Be

When I talk about level-setting, I mean adjusting expectations. Doing a reality check. Being the voice of reason. This doesn’t seem to be happening as much as it used to, and it got me thinking about why that might be and the impact it might have on leadership.

Certainly, anyone who enters a situation with false or unadjusted expectations to begin with makes that situation more challenging for its leader. Whether these expectations were established through external circumstances – like social comparison motive – or through a poor lack of communication from the outset, doesn’t really matter. What matters now is that leaders need to proceed with even more caution than ever to ensure that everyone’s expectations about a goal, project, or task are on the same level. Making assumptions is even more dangerous than before because, I believe, people’s expectations are falsely higher than before.

In part, we can’t blame people. Humans are prone to the overconfidence effect, where we all think our outcomes will be far more optimistic than probability odds actually predict. So if someone’s viewpoint has been raised by social comparison motive, for example, not only are they likely to want a better outcome, they may in fact expect it. We have heard a lot about managing the multi-generational workforce, but the challenge of managing against these undue expectations can cross all generations because people of all ages are susceptible to hype and social comparisons.

Similarly, the leader may suffer from overconfidence effect when it comes to her team or a particular individual. But if the schism between the two parties’ expectations is made wider than either expects due to these societal influences, then the impact of overconfidence is even more pronounced. This points out that even leaders need to question their own expectations (or have a reliable go-to person who they can level-set against).


Are there any solutions to this current dilemma? Let’s revisit to some tried and true methods:

  1. Clearly state outcomes and expectations – Both parties must have the freedom to discuss their understanding of  expectations from the outset. Leaders must be clear and exacting in their communications and team members need to speak up if they don’t understand or anticipate a difference between what’s achievable and the leader's expectations.
  2. Never assume anything – the larger the potential chasm for misunderstanding, the more important it is that leaders do not take for granted that others are on the same page with them unless there is a discussion and agreement to that end.
  3. You have to handle the truth – I frequently quote the epic line Jack Nicholson barks in the movie, A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” For anyone who wants to believe in the inflated fabrication of reality TV or even Mad Men-like glorified advertising campaigns, the truth bites. But the world that most of us occupy on a daily basis is not this distorted world. Real reality may be the least appealing and, perhaps, the hardest one to lead through. In this reality, the leader has to motivate people whose own reality may be something of a parallel universe. And that’s tough.

So the next time you’re wondering why people aren’t doing what you’d expect them to be doing under normal circumstances, remember that we’re living in the Kardashian Age. In these times, we may have to un-teach the drinking of the Kool-Aid, and not the other way around.

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