Leadership and the sychophancy trap — The escape

Once a leader is caught in the vicious web of sycophancy, no matter how strong his personality, he becomes a puppet in the hands of his serenading puppeteers who simply pull the string at will and practically goad him on to do their biddings which they project to him as his ideas. Until and unless he deliberately extricates himself from their snare, he remains their prey for as long as they desire or he remains relevant to their pecuniary cause.

How does a leader escape from the trap of sycophants? Sycophants prey primarily on the ego of the leader which they waste no time whatsoever in massaging at every turn even when the leader behaves evidently despicably. The first thing a leader therefore needs to realize is that even though life and fortune may have put him on a platform that makes him more elevated than others, he is still human and therefore not infallible. Everyone is prone to making mistakes. If the people that surround you keep telling you that every action of yours is perfect, you are in serious danger as a leader. This would usually happen if you are the kind of leader who cannot tolerate dissent and would never like anyone telling you that you goofed. Once your followers notice that, the sycophants among them simply dig in their heels and take over the terrain.

When a leader becomes comfortable in his own skin and with his own fallibility as a human being, he naturally exudes a good self-esteem. He does not need to prove any point and so is never afraid of being wrong. And when that happens, he has no qualms making amends and apologizing to all concerned. Sycophants cannot stand the presence of a leader who does not let the praise of men get into his head, especially when he does not give undue attention to those who give such unsolicited eulogies. He is as comfortable with praise as with criticism.

A leader must be willing to be unpopular but insistent on being fair. A leader can neither be liked by all nor please everyone. People rate a leader from the lens of their personal concerns. Some of the leader’s decisions will negatively affect the concerns of some while they positively affect others’. Fairness to all is the hallmark of great leadership. Fairness may generate some dislikes but it will earn the leader respect and admiration and keep sycophancy at bay.

Another quality of great leadership that sycophants cannot stand is transparency. A transparent leader is like an open book to his followers. Their relationship with him gives some clearly predictable outcomes. Transparent leadership simply breaks the cultic cabal around leadership by exposing the cult for what it is, self-seeking. The leader must leave no one around him in doubt about what he will and will not do. He must espouse a set of known personal values and compass of conduct to which he holds himself in the open view of all. To this end the leader, while being human should not have secrets of sordid skeletons in his cupboard. When secrets of salacious and moral somersault escapades of the leader are known to his followers, he is quickly demystified. Sycophancy then graduates to blackmail and control.

Sycophancy thrives on tale bearing. A sycophant makes his entry into the life of a leader by telling him unsubstantiated stories about some other people. Cheap gossip and blackmail are the hallmarks of sycophancy. Every leader must however understand that anyone who gossips about another to him will gossip to others about him. When talebearers know that a leader’s disposition encourages their perfidy, they learn how to embellish such stories in order to give a semblance of credibility. A leader with a poor self-esteem simply laps up these stories and soon begins to see other members of his team from the roles they allegedly play in the skewed narratives. As this tendency progresses, the leader begins to have imaginary enemies among his followers and becomes overtly suspicious of them. This confirms what the Bible says that when a leader develops ears for gossip, in time all his followers begin to appear wicked.

To overcome this, a leader must learn to confront not only the issues but the people said to be involved in the matter. What you cannot confront you cannot change and must therefore, even to your own detriment, condone. Whatever anyone has to say about another, listen. But go a step further to ask if the reporter can say it to the face of the subject of discourse. If he cannot, dismiss him as you would a meddlesome interloper and with a stern warning of the consequences of a repeat. If he says that he can say it to the other person’s face, waste no time in setting up a meeting between the duo with you moderating!

The forte of sycophancy is its ability to weave a web around the leader, trapping him in a vicious ring that becomes the filter of every narrative. Any leader in the stranglehold of this vortex is on dangerous grounds. Captive of his own insecurity, the leader, serenaded by the ego-soothing lullabies of parasitic sycophancy, can hardly tell the difference between fantasy and reality. African traditional leadership structures are replete with models that actually incubate this tendency. Among the Yoruba, the word ‘Oba’ translated King actually derives from the expression “One who towers over all”. The cognomen ‘Kabiyesi’ means no one can call him to question on any action of his no matter how odious, since he is the ethereal representation of deity. This larger than life image is capped with a royal court replete with courtesans and a panoply of full time praise singers and drummers who herald his grand entrance and exit and reinforce his infallibility with punctuations of unsolicited eulogies while he holds court. A leader suffused with this perception of reality will court sycophancy. Surrounded by such display of rehearsed sycophancy, a leader cannot ever get to know the truth on any matter from any member of his “inner circle” of hangers on.

To get the truth on any matter, a leader must look beyond the loop of his so-called inner circle. Since the people closest to him are least likely to let him see reality beyond his immediate ken, the leader must develop his alternative ears to the ground.

On a final note, a leader must be able to define a collective reality to his followers in a way that easily rewards compliance and promptly sanctions deviance. In the absence of a collective ethos to which all subscribe, anything is possible. It is an appropriate atmosphere for unbridled sycophancy to thrive. Unchecked sycophancy has led to the fall of many a leader. By the time it is over, everyone loses, both leader and followers.

Unfortunately, as soon as the leader is out of office, sycophants simply switch allegiance.

After all, no fly follows a corpse into the grave!

Remember, the sky is not your limit, God is!