Leaders and the Santa Syndrome

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Jonar Nader Santa Claus and the CEO

I am not sure about the merits of being with like-minded people. In my work and social life, I do not seek like-mindedness. I prefer to be with leaders who desire to be right-minded — meaning those who go in search of what is right, correct, and proper. That opens a whole new argument about right and wrong. (Incidentally, I have never understood the easy mantra that says, ‘There are no right or wrong answers.’)

What I have observed after 34 years as a corporate man, is that the fiercest arguments come not from people disagreeing about whether or not to go east or west. Instead, people become entangled in one of two possible battles: 1) They vehemently defend their right to go east or west; and 2) They fight about someone telling them that it is wrong to do what they have traditionally done (or have been indoctrinated to do).

If you attack people’s rights, they will hit back. If you tell them that they are wrong, they will fight. All this, before anyone has asked, ‘Pray tell, which is the correct path?’ It seems that before we can have a sensible discussion about what is right, we must first tip-toe around what is wrong. Telling people that they are wrong, tends to create friction. No-one likes it. Even those in the thick of mischief or corporate theft or greed or bribery and unethical behaviour, would not listen to reason, because they endorse what they are doing. They sponsor their own proclivities and deem their own actions to be suitable and proper.

I’ll give you a perfect example. Now that Christmas is over, maybe I can dare to challenge Christians and non-Christians alike, by suggesting that parents who promote the myth of Santa Claus are harming their relationship with their child. That statement alone is controversial on several fronts.

I do not understand how it is sensible to lie to children. Santa does not now exist. So how do parents justify the charade? They argue that children should be afforded the magic of Christmas, or that children deserve to dream and fantasise. Sadly, such antics neither promote creativity nor encourage imagination. Children deserve to live an enchanting and zestful life. However, being told that a non-existent person is alive and coming down a chimney, does not promote imagination because the premise is down-and-out not true. (One mother protested at this suggestion by saying, ‘Santa forces children to be good. How can I get them to be good if I cannot use Santa as an incentive?’)

Examine the child’s (and parents’) excitement that surrounds Santa’s arrival, and observe how the children can’t wait to find the presents. Some are overjoyed at Santa having consumed the biscuits and milk. It boggles their little mind. In the end, it is a lie. It is collusion. It is training a child to believe in something that the parents have concocted via deceptive staging and execution. Sooner or later, the child has to learn the truth. Which means, sooner or later the child learns that the parents have been lying and colluding (from the purest of motives and the most loving of intentions). Traditionalists might say, ‘No harm done’.

Can there be harm in tricking children into an intense belief, only to destroy their faith in their parents’ delusions? The cards crumble as the child ponders the existence of the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Boogie Man, and the Mermaid. Finally, children have to question their parents’ credibility when it comes to what their parents have been teaching about Jesus, God, Love, Honesty, Integrity, and other traditions and values.

At this point in the argument, if you have any feelings on this subject, I would hazard a guess that your opinion is polarised. You either strongly agree or very strongly disagree with the proposition and accusations thus far. And this is precisely my point. This article is NOT about Santa Claus. It is about people’s belief systems, and how people defend their beliefs. This article is about what people follow, and how they become loyal to their traditions.

In essence, it really does not matter what I think about Santa. I do not need to argue with you. I just needed you to feel that irritation about my attacking something dear to you. I referenced Santa merely to illustrate how people dislike having their belief-system challenged. Parents who want to glorify Santa, are difficult to sway. Un-teaching and un-learning and un-doing seem the first major (and sometimes insurmountable) hurdles that leaders face within their own mind, and then within their own institutions. If it’s not about Santa Claus, it’s about unions, governments, policies, men, women, salaries, equality, ethics, promotions… not to mention twisted and convoluted misunderstandings about missions, visions, and those supposedly shared values.

During the period of time when executives are engaged in unsavoury pursuits, it is difficult for any sanity to prevail. Who can tell a corrupt minister or senator to straighten-up and fly right; especially when that person is in the middle of a lucrative deal? Who shall tell the bent cop to stop that behaviour? Who wants to listen?

And so dear leader, when would you listen? At which point would something that is dear to your heart, be permitted to undergo a thorough examination? No-one who loves golf or tennis, will enrol in a seminar to listen to a zealot speaking disparagingly about these sports.

Devout Jews, Christians, or Muslims would not be likely to seek out seminars to convince them why they are worshiping the wrong deity. People simply do not go in search of that which is likely to conflict with their belief system. Which is why it is always funny when corporate leaders ask me for advice. My first response is, ‘What makes you think you would want to hear something that is contrary to the norm?’ Then I ask them, ‘How would you recognise good advice when you hear it?’ Those who are sold on Santa are hard to shift. Those who do business in a certain way, are equally stuck in their methods. Shifting people’s ideas and ideologies can be more trouble than they can tolerate. And so we wonder, how do executives and business leaders ever grow and elevate to the next level of maturity for themselves personally, and for everyone else within their organisation?

The brick walls are thick and high. These days, business leaders (CEOs and Presidents) are being asked to lead. In so doing, who cares to follow? Who is conducting the necessary reconnaissance missions, in search of the right way? Who desires to listen about right and wrong, when groups and clans are firmly planted in their own traditions? That’s not even counting the taboos and cultural fixations. In certain cultures, some things cannot even be tabled, let alone discussed.

When I agree to assist my clients, I must first seek their commitment that our meetings must offer managers and divisional leaders an opportunity to: discuss the unmentionables; to explore the indefensible; and to challenge the immovable.

I do not seek to be with like-minded people. The exploratory groups I form are designed to bring managers together within the secrecy and safety that is afforded behind closed doors, so that we can dare to speak up, ponder, query, ask, argue, debate, disagree, listen, learn, teach… with a view to refashion the traditions that bind and blind.

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