You may have heard the expression that fish and guests stink after three days. I have put "three" in a new saying: Leaders stink after three years.
If you want evidence for the new saying, consider how long Australian prime ministers last before being rolled by MPs in their own party: Keven Rudd 2007-2010, Julia Gillard 2010-2013, Tony Abbott 2013-2015, Malcolm Turnbull 2015-2018.
I am not saying that leaders always get booted out within three years. Dictators and religious leaders can stay in position for a lifetime. I am saying that leaders and managers at all levels tend to be widely disliked within three years of taking a position. Why does that happen?
One reason is that leaders receive many requests from underlings and inevitably say no to some. The followers take for granted any yes response and fume about any no.
Leaders also receive suggestions for how to improve an organisation. Many leaders love their own ideas and no others. So they reject or ignore ideas from underlings. The underlings don't like that.
Leaders sometimes make unpopular decisions. Some leaders speak honestly about their reasoning. Others lie. Underlings may be self-focused, but they are not dumb. They see through the lie, and the leader loses credibility. Then there are underlings who think they deserve to be the leader. They burn with ambition and are willing to put a knife, so to speak, in the back of the person who is blocking them from ascending. This scenario does not occur only in Parliament.
These problems with underlings accumulate over time. The underlings show hostility toward the leader. Many leaders reciprocate the hostility, producing a downward spiral of emotions and behaviour in leader and underlings.
After three years, even good leaders tend to stink. They may perceive themselves as doing the best they can under the circumstances. Others are not so positive in their views of the leader.
So why do intelligent humans take leader positions? I suppose that they seek power, money, or prestige. Some have goals of helping the organisation or the public.
They need a thick skin if they want to enjoy their work. Or a change in position every few years. In one of my recent formal-leader roles I experienced a remarkable level of hostility whenever I said no to any request. I fled that role within a year.
I do not have thick skin. How about you?
John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.