I’ve heard that line a lot in my life. Unfortunately, I’ve even said that line at times. While it may be true that a parent has the right to determine the rules in their house or a leader has the right to determine the way things will be done on their watch, the people hearing that line know what it really means. It means, “I care more about being right than I do about you.”
Legalism is defined as excessive adherence to law or formula and is often thought of in association with religion, however, it applies to many other areas of our lives just as accurately. Legalism is often alive and well in the workplace, and leaders are just as susceptible to it as a frustrated dad dealing with a recalcitrant teenager.
Legalism in leadership is dangerous because it substitutes blind adherence to a set of rules (often rules set by a single person) for rational and open dialogue between all the participants in the community. When we talk about the wisdom of the crowd, we are talking about the opposite of legalism. Communities that foster open dialogue are better able to anticipate and manage the rapidly changing environment we live in.
Over 12 million people a year have a stroke. Historically, people didn’t realize they were having a mild stroke and the delay in care caused the outcomes to be poor. BE FAST became an easy way to remember and then recognize the signs of stroke. As leaders we need ways to recognize and stop legalistic behavior in our communities before it causes irreparable damage. Here are a few warning signs:
Attacking people, processes, and rules that hold leadership accountable. An attack doesn’t have to be violent to be effective. Sometimes the erosion occurs over time, but if we are looking for it, it is obvious. Anytime a leader reacts negatively to being questioned, audited, or monitored, it is a potential problem. Obviously, unreasoned questioning of everything a leader does is inappropriate, but reasonable and rational checks are important to healthy leadership.
Pitting people against each other or against the “system”. Legalism flourishes in an environment of distrust and judgement. Legalistic leaders will create opposition between people to generate a level of instability that they can use to maintain control. For this to work, the leader will often discourage or even prohibit people from discussing the issues with each other.
Using “stick figures” and “emergencies” to consolidate power. Nothing creates an opportunity to seize additional power like a good crisis. Legalistic leaders will often use critical moments in a community’s life to bypass normal processes and controls in the name of efficiently handling the situation. When a leader tries to circumvent the processes in a way that eliminates good change management processes, we should be concerned.
In a healthy community led by healthy leaders, there is always room for questions, dialogue, and transparent processes. Whenever I find myself acting in a manner that communicates “my way or the highway,” I need to examine what I am afraid of.
Weak leaders are afraid of the possibility that other people may be smarter than they are. Weak leaders use forms of legalism to prevent the collective wisdom work that is so effective at creating solutions, because it threatens their personal ego. Weak leaders have a poor sense of self that causes them to be threatened by every challenge.
Strong leaders are comfortable with other people being the experts and are not threatened by others’ success. Strong leaders foster communication and collaboration and create opportunities for growth for others. Strong leaders have a healthy sense of self that gives them the ability to be open to new information and ways of doing things.
Healthy leaders and healthy communities acknowledge that there are many right answers to most questions and maintain an open curiosity and eagerness to find great solutions no matter the origin. Like the leader, a community needs a strong sense of self to be capable of being open to change. The beliefs, mission, core values, and vision of a community form this basis.
“My way or the highway” doesn’t really work with your teen, and it certainly doesn’t work in a community of adults. Leaders who are comfortable with their own sense of self can be open to being challenged, questioned, and even audited, and they can be trusted. The community that can trust their leader and each other is better able to create opportunity and live the Bison Way.