Saturday, 16 February 2013

The psychology of leadership

Who would you rather be? A three times married, luxury car and yacht collector CEO or a CEO who gives himself/herself $1 annual salary and is focused on employee welfare? And who would you rather work for?

This was the question asked by Professor Mark Van Vugt to open his lecture I attended Wednesday 13th February entitled Follow me: the evolutionary psychology of (charismatic) leadership and power. Mark van Vugt is Professor of Group and Organizational Psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University.
He explained that leadership is something that all cultures have but that there are many models of leadership with no scientific value and people can make a fortune writing about it. This is something I am beginning to discover in the Library Leadership Reading Group – everyone has a theory but few have the evidence to back it up. Despite there being so many publications, Mark informed us, there are still many questions unanswered such as:

  • Why do tall leader candidates usually beat shorter ones in elections?
  • Why does power corrupt?
  • Why do women CEO’s attract so much hostility?
His theory is that leaders and followers are inevitable in social structures; these techniques evolved as strategies to ensure coordination of activities, for example, food gathering, making shelters etc. If our brains think we are under threat they have evolved to recognise what to do to solve the problem and this includes following physically stronger people if we are in physical danger or experienced people if we are feeling unsure about something.

Mark gave examples of leadership in the animal kingdom and explained that while many are leaders through their dominance, occasionally the leader is someone unexpected. Elephants, for example, follow the oldest female as she knows where all the waterholes are. I didn’t figure out why the oldest male wouldn’t know this and it seems to be the wrong place to make a quip about asking for directions.

Bees do a waggle dance to signify their leadership
According to Mark, humans are natural born followers as it is the default setting in our brain. This is probably a good job as there isn’t the space for lots of leaders; however, I have never seen a book entitled – how to be a good follower. Reasons why we follow others could be because we want to be leaders in the future so are watching how it’s done, because we want to learn new skills and/or because we want protection.  Mark told us how humans are generally egalitarian and moralistic and have an aversion to being dominated, hence groups like Occupy, Anonymous and cases like Wikileaks spring up as a defence against big corporations, politicians and other groups we perceive to be bullies.  While I’d like to believe him, I think his statistic that for two thirds of employees the most stressful aspect of their job is their boss indicates we are still a little way off treating everyone as equals.

Many of his findings I found to be quite disappointing, e.g. children can often tell who will win an election by looking at the candidates’ faces indicating that voters prefer a tall, charismatic man regardless of his policies, that women are generally not seen as leaders unless it is to broker peace and that if you give anyone power their empathy reduces and they become more self-focused.
I had attended this lecture as I am interested in what makes people tick. Learning about leadership in the past has helped me not only increase my own skills when having to manage people and lead projects in the past but also helped me understand the people I work for. This lecture made me feel slightly disillusioned that people are swayed by superficiality when making important decisions and I know that this has always been the case but seeing  it in black and white on a screen makes stark viewing. This week I have also just finished reading The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson which outlines the charismatic charm which psychopaths use to get their own way. The combination of the two emphasised to me the importance of understanding how our brains respond to situations and people so we can recognise this and do something about it.

And to answer the question set at the beginning – most people would rather be the first person but would rather work for the second. I’ll leave that up to you to decide what that says about our moralistic and egalitarian race.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

LIKE 42: Elevator speeches OR you’re stuck in a lift when…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you get a chance encounter with the very person you want to meet you won’t be looking your best or able to come out with that witty, concise statement that gets the person you’ve met wanting to know more – until they’ve walked away from you that is.

LIKE 42 was set to change all that and prepare us (the attendees of London Information and Knowledge Exchange events) for such an occurrence. I first heard about elevator speeches at the SLA Conference in Chicago and wanted to find out a bit more so I was very pleased when the monthly events’ organisers took on my suggestion to cover the topic.

An elevator speech is based on the premise that one day, in a serendipitous fashion, you will find yourself in a lift with the head/director/ultimate of the powers that be and are able to grab their attention for the 30 seconds or so that it takes to reach your destination to persuade them that you (or your team/product) are worth knowing more about.
The Willis Tower in Chicago has an extremely quick lift which makes your ears pop - this makes erudite conversations quite tricky.
Suzanne Wheatley from Sue Hill Recruitment, led the session in a breezy, engaging and entertaining manner in the hour before our dinner arrived. After introducing the topic, we had to practise our handshakes. Everyone hates a limp or bone-crushing handshake so we were told to go around the room and shake four people’s hands. There were a few lingerers but nothing too bad as I guess we were all on best handshake behaviour. After a staring competition to emphasise the importance of eye contact, we were then asked to say some tongue twisters. These were to help us speak clearly, at varying speeds and without gabbling and stumbling over words. I think it worked. I can sometimes speak too quietly or too quickly but reading out the tongue twisters helped me understand what it actually feels like to take pauses, breathe and enunciate properly.

Our final task before practising our speech was to write it. We could choose to talk about ourselves, a team or system which needed promoting, or LIKE. As I’ve been trying to ‘sell’ Talis Aspire (reading list management software) at work with varied success rates I chose to focus on this. To create a successful elevator pitch, we were told, it must include the following:
  • an aim or problem we could solve
  •  a unique selling point or the benefits of the solution
  •  a closing question so the conversation can continue at a later date.

When practising our speeches I completely ran out of time and forgot to ask my question – much practise is obviously needed! However, I now realise that not only do I need to cut out the waffle I need to get some hard facts or statistics to back up my arguments. It has definitely given me something to work with.

Thank you Suzanne and LIKE. Suzanne has also written her own post about the event.