Humble Leadership: Don’t Drown In Your Own Kool-Aid

I hate corporate jargon. So, just for a Friday dose of irony, here’s an article chock full of cliches and jargon.

There is a saying that is oft used by leaders in the context of employee motivation: “We drink our own Kool-Aid!” Of course, the sentiment is intended to be something to the effect of buying into your own hype. If you’re a fan of this phrase, try to understand why this sinister historical reference is just, well, gross. There’s a more updated, politically correct version (“We drink our own champagne!”) that is supposed to have something to do with celebrating yourselves, but it’s really just a polished up version of the same repulsive reference.

The point of this post is not to just convince you to stop using these phrases, but to reconsider the mentality that allowed you to think these phrases were ever okay to apply to a workplace and its employees. When you say these things, you are suggesting that a cult-like willingness to follow you off a cliff characterizes the corporate culture you’re seeking to build. Let’s put this into context. Cults are built on fear, zealotry, unquestioning compliance and subservience, elitism, social ostracization, common enemies (“us vs. them”), and the belief that nothing else will ever be better than what they have with you. Is this really what you’re asking of your employees? These are clearly qualities of toxic leadership and yet, I hear this phrase way too often by modern leaders of major organizations.

So, let’s say that you are successful in creating a Kool-Aid culture in your organization or your team. They’ve all bought into the elitist, infallible mentality of cult culture. They genuinely believe they are the best (in the industry, in the world,…) and hey, they produce results. Or worse, when they don’t produce results, they blame everything and everyone but themselves. That is, if they’re not completely paralyzed by a culture of fear, reinforced by ostracization of dissenters and suppression of diversity of opinion or experiences.

“If it wasn’t for X, this would have gone perfectly.”

“X team is completely incompetent. Without them, we could do this the right way.”

“The people making the decisions are the problem. If we were in charge, everything would be great and we could fix all this.”

When you buy your own hype, when you “drink your own Kool-Aid,” you stop looking for opportunities to improve.

You are already the best, so what’s there to improve on? After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Complacency and hubris sets in.

Complacency leads to decreased product (or service) quality and loss of competitiveness by virtue of low innovation or a feeling of entitlement towards customers’ business. It’s also a symptom of employees who are no longer invested in the success of your company. But, you’ll never notice because everything is awesome,right?!

“Our customers and employees are never going to leave. They need us. We’re the best. Why would they ever leave? And, who cares if they leave? We can always get new ones.”

Hubris is incredibly toxic, especially in your employees’ attitudes towards your customers. It is often the catalyst for the disintegration of the vital human relationships that make cross-functional collaboration possible. It will lead to lost clients, dysfunctional internal relationships, broken processes, employee dissatisfaction, and ultimately, the altogether collapse of the once-great tiny kingdom you used to reign over. No man is an island, as they say.

It’s time to stop drinking your own Kool-Aid (or champagne) before you drown in it. Leaders who practice humility are more likely to create an environment that promotes innovation by supporting diversity in both opinion and experiences, encouraging constructive dissent, and valuing continual improvement. They will see lower employee turnover, increased customer lifetime value with stronger client relationships, and ultimately, better results for the bottom line.

Interested in reading more about humble leadership? Check out my other blog post on the Power of Apology.

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