Leading like a Hippopotamus

Huggy Rao, a Stanford University professor, has conversations with leaders all over the country. During these chats he discovered that most of the leaders he speaks with lead like hippos. They talk too much and listen too infrequently. Much like a hippo, their mouths are too big and their ears are too little.

According to Rao, the major source of this talking and hearing dysfunction is the seduction of power. He claims the more power a person has, the more likely their ability to process information goes down. He also suggests that powerful leaders become more stereotypical in their behavior and prone to make snap judgments. The cumulative effect of power hungry leadership styles for leaders is their banishment and isolation. They essentially get tuned out by their direct reports.

Hippo leaders also have a tendency to hang out with other leaders who talk more than they listen.

In 2013, some Canadian researchers did an experiment regarding the influence of mirror neurons on empathy. They put a group of supervisors together and found that their empathy levels were off the charts. They then put the same group of supervisors in a room with their direct reports. Their empathy levels went down. Lessons learned. Association with power similarities among likeminded supervisors increased empathy. Relating to powerlessness differences amid junior employees decreased empathy.

This is why Rao recommends that leaders should spend one day a week doing a frontline position within their organization. If they do they can combat the following notions that particularly affect large organizations:

• Anonymity and silence.
• Smart people becoming quieter and keeping their ideas to themselves.
• Bystander apathy running rampant.
• Ignoring difficult challenges.

When employees see their leader in the trenches with them, they:

• Feel visible.
• Begin to verbalize their thoughts.
• Take more initiative.

How do you lead? Hopefully, not like a hippopotamus. If you do, you may find yourself like real hippos — endangered.

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