I believe you, Governor Christie. I believe you did not personally order the huge mess of a traffic jam at the George Washington bridge last November. You couldn’t possibly be that stupid. But two members of your team did, and you own their behavior.  In fact, every CEO or leader owns the behavior of his senior team. The challenge for every leader is to gain understanding of how one’s own behavior influences subordinates, and how their behavior in turn, may result in the unforeseen knife flying through the air.

Why The “Other Guys” Didn’t Do It!

Jerry Harvey, author of the Abilene Paradox, wrote a wonderfully thoughtful little book with one of the best titles of all time: “How Come Every Time I get Stabbed in the Back My Finger Prints are on The Knife?”  In it he explains the many ways we are responsible for our own fate, yet we all have the tendency to deny our complicity when we experience the apparent stabbing in the back.

I recently wrote that I didn’t believe President Obama knew that it was a lie when he repeatedly proclaimed “You can keep your insurance policy if you like it.” Again, he couldn’t be that stupid as to repeatedly say something that would eventually make him look dishonest. I am non-partisan and will give the Governor the same benefit of the doubt. However, they both share the same defect: failing to understand the relationship between their own behavior and the behavior of those who fling knives that become lodged in their own anatomy.

Early in my career I worked in North Carolina prisons. I interviewed all the inmates (about 150) in one prison. Key learning: none of them belonged there! They were all there because of “the other guys” who led them into their unfortunate circumstances. They had all been stabbed in the back while innocently minding their own business. There is something called “locus-of-control” that explains our tendency to place responsibility for events in our life on a continuum from internality to externality. Highly successful people tend to be highly internal in their assumptions about responsibility for events in their life. Losers, and prison is simply a good place to find a highly reliable sample, tend to place responsibility outside of their control – “the other guys did it!”

Governor Christie and His Alleged Bullying

christie1Governor Christie, in a two-hour news conference that I watched in full, repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and demonstrated his decisiveness by firing and dismissing two members of his inner circle. He of course made the same, “the buck stops here”, “I am responsible” statement made by President Obama – a mea culpa that has  become the necessary and politically correct response of every public figure in trouble. But, this does not reveal a true understanding of the connection between one’s own behavior and the behavior of others. Was the governor saving his own skin by dismissing others, or was he actually learning something about his own behavior?

In the same press conference the governor repeatedly stated that he was not a bully, something he has often been accused of. What others recognize is that if a leader does engage in bullying behavior, it is not unreasonable to expect those close to him to adopt this same style of behavior toward others.  Bullying behavior by senior subordinates is prima facie evidence of the leaders own behavior. There is an explanation for why his subordinates believed it was OK to block traffic on the busiest bridge in the world for four days and that explanation goes deeper than simply proclaiming them to be “stupid” as he did!

Governor Christie repeatedly portrayed himself as a hapless victim of his subordinates behavior. But victim hood is not a good hood to be in for a leader. It is the hood of externals who believe the “other guys” are responsible, not internals; it is the place for losers and not winners.

Former Governor Kean of New Jersey said that “Governor Christie has created a culture among his tight inner circle in which no one will say no to him, and that is dangerous.” It is the danger experienced by President Obama when no one told him that the website wasn’t ready or that his statements about keeping your insurance coverage were obviously incorrect. In both cases they lacked truth tellers who would confront them with truth and in both cases they failed to look in the mirror and see the knife flying through the air that would soon be lodged in their back.

One former state senator said of Governor Christie that “He has been a bully his entire life, and slowly but surely that is starting to become evident to everyone who is watching this from outside New Jersey.” But, the governor thinks that everyone else is wrong about him. Over and over he has stated that he is not a bully. None of us see ourselves exactly the way others do. However, the greater the gap in the perception of others and our own, the greater the likelihood that it is us who is out of touch with our own reality. If many of those who experience your behavior experience it as bullying, then you probably are a bully. For many years I have conducted Executive Feedback session after interviewing and surveying the executive’s team members. There is always some gap between their own perceptions and the perceptions of others. Knowing how others view you is critical to your own success.

B.F. Skinner once made the observation that the difference between mice and people is that mice learn from experience. The question now for the governor is can he learn from his experience and change his behavior toward others to change perceptions, particularly the perceptions of his inner circle.

Tips for CEO’s and other leaders:

  • First, make sure you have several members of your team who are absolute, sure-shot, guaranteed truth tellers. Don’t ever punish, verbally or otherwise, those who confront you with how your behavior is experienced by others. Listen well!
  • Second, again as B.F. Skinner once said, “the mice are never wrong.” The way others experience you is the way you are in their experience. They are not wrong. Others may experience you in different ways, but the way I experience you is one hundred percent correct from my experience. You own that experience.
  • Third, if you experience the discomfort of a knife suddenly entering your back, assume that your own finger prints are on the knife and seek to understand how your behavior caused the damage.
  • Dismiss the other guys! You cannot be surrounded by people who are constantly blaming the other guy for bad outcomes. Look in the mirror and make sure you aren’t one of them!
  • And, dare I say that there are times when it is best to get feedback from an external coach who is willing to share a more detached perspective and is less likely to suffer career consequences if the feedback is uncomfortable. With an external coach you can have a confidential dialogue on how you can change your own behavior in positive ways.