Oddly enough, one of the challenges followers often face is helping leaders develop tolerance, decency and, in a sense, maturity. All humans struggle with the need to grow up, to accept that the rest of the world is not here to serve us, that people are going to differ with us, and that this is okay. The world soon teaches most of us these lessons, and we find ways of coping with our younger egocentric view of life even if we do not fully transform it.
When skill and circumstances combine to put us in a position of formal leadership, our early egocentric impulses are vulnerable to reemergence. If, as too often happens, leaders are surrounded by followers who kowtow to them, the immature parts of their personality, which have not been fully transformed, tend to regain dominance.
If the immature aspects of a leader’s personality appear with increased frequency, this leaves us in the odd and difficult position of serving a leader who is competent, even brilliant in some dimensions, and a spoiled brat in other respects. The internal confusion and conflict that a follower may feel when confronted by the discrepancy between the mature and immature traits of a leader should not be underestimated: Is this brilliant, sometimes abusive leader deserving of my support or not?
This would not be such a difficult question if we felt empowered to challenge a leader about the immature behavior while supporting the mature skills and judgment he brings to the group. If our behavior is disruptive to the group, the leader is expected to raise the issue with us; similarly, we need to break the taboo against our raising behavior issues with the leader.
It is difficult to break the taboo because our early conditioning about leaders takes place in childhood, at home and school, where others are held responsible for our behavior but we are not held responsible for theirs. The power of our early conditioning is so strong that for most of us it is an act of courage to confront a leader about counterproductive behavior, instead of an ordinary act of relationship.
As in so many aspects of relationship, if we have difficulty with a leader who displays immaturity it is because we also have issues with maturity.
Too often, because of our sense of powerlessness, we complain protractedly to others about a leader’s behavior instead of taking effective action. We do not serve the leader or organization well by immaturely whining about a leader’s behavior instead of confronting the leader and participating in a process of mutual development.
It requires a courageous follower to confront a powerful leader about immature behavior. The situation can resemble confronting a young child holding a loaded gun; you may be shot persuading the child to put it down. It requires a skillful follower to confront a leader in a way that simultaneously respects the accomplished adult, preserves the adult’s self- esteem, and challenges the immature behavior.