In their song “Cult of Personality,” the band Living Colour described the idolization of a leader best:

“Neon lights, a Nobel Prize, when a mirror speaks, the reflection lies, …I sell the things you need to be, I'm the smiling face on your T.V., I'm the cult of personality, I exploit you, still you love me, I tell you one and one makes three, I’m the cult of personality.”

Grand statues. Awards and recognition. Portraits on buildings, flags, and posters. An adoring, unyielding following that would do anything for their fearless leader. The leader revels in the spotlight, receiving credit for everything and blame for nothing. Accountability is a one-way street, and those who make it possible are the ones who suffer. All are hallmarks of a cult of personality. And all of us are susceptible to it.

A cult of personality is traditionally only possible on a large scale for those who control the media, conduct propaganda campaigns, and stage spectacles. If you look at history, from Mao in China, to Stalin in the Soviet Union, on down to Jim Jones in Guyana, to the past decade in America, you don’t have to look far to see that cults of personality tend not to end well. And yet, we humans still fall for this type of irrational idolization. Given a taste of power, most people naturally become egotistical and power hungry, obsessed with being loved and validated. Leaders in every industry, and in almost every company try to fashion themselves as this type of leader in order to take advantage of our peculiar sociological deficiency. Instead of building healthy, two-way relationships with subordinates, they want to be idolized. They recognize idolization as the gravity that, if achieved, makes leadership effortless. As a leader, of course you want your job to be as easy as possible. But having your followers’ undying loyalty comes at a steep cost.

On an organizational level, the costs of idolization have cascading effects. When you are recognized as the leader, those closest to you with whom you’ve built up the most trust, will be the first to set aside principle in service of your ambitions. This is a dangerous predicament, as a subordinate’s proximity to you renders them willing to do anything to get a taste of power and to avoid your disapproval. Even if it means breaking the law, they will see their allegiance to you as the priority. As they cement their position in your hierarchy, the same effect will take place with their subordinates, and on down the chain of command. Like a growing tree, as your organization expands, the concentric circles of influence increase and duplicate in the same manner. As a leader, it is your job to recognize this problem from the outset and fix it immediately. And it all starts with you.

On a personal level, examine your own behavior. You know that when you agree with someone, you tend to give them more leeway than someone with whom you disagree. When you agree with someone in power, you take that leeway to an entirely new level. When I first started working for the restaurant, I recognized that the owner, in addition to being physically imposing (he was the size of an NFL linebacker), he was a powerful guy with lots of connections. My instinct told me that I had to do everything he said and did in order to get and stay on his good side. But as I began to see the backstabbing and the pandering from others in the organization who succumbed to this natural instinct, I realized that the toxic work environments in several locations were the natural result of the owner’s choosing. He had the power to fix it, yet he allowed his ego to take over by only hiring “yes-men” who would position themselves for his approval rather than for the good of the company. From the beginning, I knew I had to lean on principle rather than undying loyalty. As an individual, you must question why and to what extent you are willing to follow a leader. Because more times than not, a leader will be taking you to where they want to go, not necessarily where you want to go.

As a leader, when you let idolization take effect, you let impotence take hold. You throw accountability out the window. You let the truth become skewed. You weaken your subordinates as they become so blinded by your authority that they cannot disagree when you tell them one and one makes three. They no longer base their decisions on a solid foundation of principle, but on the thin ice of your ambitions.

If idolization is what you want from your followers, be ready to accept impotence as the steep cost.

Become a Better Leader

The world is starved of principled leadership. I’m writing to help you step up and step into that void.

This free email series will cover every aspect of principled leadership, from personal to organizational leadership, to navigating the muddy waters of poor leadership.

Sign up for 100 Days of Leadership

Enter your email, and you’ll receive a series of hard-earned, time-tested, practical principles that will make you a better leader, or help you become a leader.