Real Leaders

Dear Condescending Leader: This Is What You Sound Like

We have a funny family story about a woman who called one of my sisters a “patronizing c*nt” out of the blue. Please excuse the language. My sister was shocked the first time she heard it, and we’ve got in the habit of roaring with laughter at this unseemly expression every time we catch any one of us going too far in helping others. That said, patronizing styles have become all too common in our day.

The patronizing leader is a figure I see every day. Men and women who tend to their subordinates as if they were vulnerable little children in terrible need of guidance, consolation and help. In fact, I saw myself making this mistake when I had my own company too. It got so bad that I got up at four in the morning to answer emails and prepare stuff for the next day, working non-stop until seven or eight that evening. When I walked around the office I got nothing but whining, complaints, ugly, unhappy faces and long-winded emails from staff who blamed me for their lack of motivation. It was hell. It really was.

Like I did then, too many business owners and corporate executives treat their team members like kids. We seem to be caught in a cycle where we try to be better bosses and parents than the adults of our childhood were. So, away with the discipline, the angry telling off, the punishments and restrictions, and hello to the motivational seminars, the cuddly meetings full of positive feedback, and patronizing leadership – that rolls a red carpet of comfort before its employees. We’ve taken positive psychology a bit too far.

It’s not only a thing we do on a personal level with our peers and children. This excess of patronizing attention permeates our entire economic system in ways that we fail to notice. Many of our business models have become invasive – with advice, unrequested favors and exhausting email publicity campaigns. Everybody wants to solve our problems, before we even know they need resolving!

I went to a new, holistic dentist last week because a filling had came out. I was told the protocol was to analyze my mouth with several tests before they could start work. I was there all morning, going through hoops and obstacles before they even looked at the problem. They kept cooing soft instructions in my ear, spreading healthy creams and ointments here and there as they pointed out new problems. I felt smaller and smaller with each patronizing gesture, guilty as judged, helpless and dumb. The perfect victim for the crazy, two-year cost estimate I was elegantly handed before I left. Wow!

Then I walked into one of Spain’s iconic all-in-one stores, “The Corte Inglés” to get some basic dental care products. I had to walk around the cosmetics floor searching for four inexpensive products. The loud music and overpowering perfume scents made me dizzy. Beautiful people wearing too much makeup and dressed in black, kept offering things to me. When I finally found what I wanted to buy, the assortment of choice was unbearable. Too many brands, too many different variations and options for each brand, too many helpers offering advice on what worked – for them. And then the promotions, loyalty cards and other million ways of getting me to come back to spend more money! If I’d been as crass as my sister’s friend I would have insulted them all and stormed out. Whew! When did shopping become so patronizing?

Patronizing marketing and selling has taken over our businesses in the last few years, and I guess I just noticed it last week. It’s excessive, luxuriously expensive and egocentrically irresponsible, given our current environmental challenges. It also makes clients feel helpless, small, ugly and belittled. Like a miserable little lamb surrounded by hungry wolves.

And I’m not so sure it actually works in the longterm. It seems too expensive to maintain. Like a repetitive story where every brand tries to spend more money on advertising than the next, in order to get their spoiled brat clients’ attention one more time. This whole system we’ve created just feels wrong. It feels like the opposite of what things should be: trusting, responsible players negotiating fair deals with each other in a way that makes them feel strong and proud, wanting to come back for more because they appreciate each other.

There is a cute video on twitter showing a mother duck who helps her little ducklings up some steps. Once again an animal demonstrates the qualities of parenthood and leadership we should all pursue. Please take a couple minutes to watch it and ask yourself if this is what you do with your subordinates, clients, friends and kids. Or do you really, really want to run over and lift them all up? 

The mother duck waits patiently until every little duckling gets it right. There is no judging, no impatience, and no patronizing, belittling “Oh you poor thing! I’ll do it for you”. This is what parenting and leadership should look like. This is what I learned after painfully closing down my company. And guess what? When I finally ran out of energy and money to keep everybody on the payroll, nobody thanked me or appreciated what I had done. No. They kicked me in the shins. In their helpless, far-too-pampered view, the company’s failure was ALL my fault, and they were the victims!

When we “help” adults who’ve never asked us, we debilitate them. We feel big at the cost of making them feel small. It’s not sustainable. And sure isn’t leadership at all.


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