My dad is Irish, and my mom is Italian, and after they got married, they wanted nothing more than a big Catholic family. First, they had my sister Lisa, then they had me, but after that, they had a couple of miscarriages and couldn’t have more biological kids. So, they decided to adopt a little girl from South Korea named Michele Joy. When she was eight months old, Michele arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport on a Boeing 747. Meeting my sister for the first time remains one of the happiest moments of my life.
My parents adored Michele, especially my dad, who spent hours playing with her in our house in Highland Mills, New York. Michele’s favorite game was to climb up a few stairs—this being the 1970s, they were shag carpet—and leap into my dad’s arms like a butterfly. At first, she was only brave enough to go up one step, but eventually she could climb all six steps and fly into my dad’s arms. I remember being impressed by my little sister’s courage, but also by how much trust she had in my father. I wanted to be strong and responsible like him. I wanted other people to have that kind of trust in me one day, too.
“Can I try catching Michele, too?” I asked him once.
“No, Tommy,” he said gently, but firmly. “You are not old enough.”
Down the street from our house lived my friend Steve Dwyer and his family. Michele and I often went to his house to play, and to get to their front door you had to climb up twelve steep cement stairs.
“Michele,” I said one day. “Do you want to play butterfly?”
My sister nodded her head enthusiastically.
“Run up to the top step and I’ll catch you!”
Even though I was barely eight years old, my sister trusted me completely. I felt strong and capable, just like my dad. I set my feet and held out my arms confidently as Michele scrambled to the top step and leapt. But this staircase was much bigger than ours, and my sister face-planted halfway down the stairs and tumbled on the hard cement. She ended up with a bloody and bruised face. To this day I thank my lucky stars that she was not severely injured. But I learned an important lesson about leadership: Sometimes we want to be like the people who lead us so badly that we mimic their actions. The responsible man he was, my dad realized this too, and he never played the butterfly game with Michele again.
Little kids are not the only ones who imitate authority figures. Not long ago I was consulting for a big Fortune 500 company. I was friends with the organization’s president—let’s call him Tim. One day I reached out to the company’s HR department about getting two tickets to a Fleetwood Mac concert at the Pepsi Center in Denver. I was mentoring a National Leadership Academy teenager at the time, and Fleetwood Mac was his favorite band in the world. “Would it be possible to get company tickets so I can bring this young man to the concert?” I asked the HR rep over email.
He must have forwarded the email to Tim, because an hour later I got a nasty email from him. “TOMMY,” Tim wrote (yes, in all caps), “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. YOU CANNOT ASK FOR FAVORS LIKE THIS.” And on and on he went. I felt like I was in third grade getting scolded by the school principal. I was shocked and confused—I make these kinds of requests for my mentees all the time. Sometimes my clients can accommodate me; other times they can’t, and that’s no problem at all. Everyone understands that I do it for the kids, not myself. I decided to take the high road and let the matter go.
Six months later I was planning one of our Heart-Led Leader Retreats with some of the senior leaders at that same Fortune 500 company. At one point in the retreat planning there was a miscommunication. It was no one’s fault, but the same HR rep sent me a blistering email just like the one Tim sent six months earlier. “TOMMY,” it began (once again, in all caps), “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.” And on and on, just like Tim had.
In that moment, my mind flashed back to my sister Michele and those twelve concrete stairs. I wanted to be like my dad so badly that I’d completely lost my better judgment. Likewise, Tim’s employees wanted to be just like their boss, and they mimicked everything he did. Especially the bad stuff. It turns out this is nothing new. Psychological studies show that we commonly emulate authority figures, both consciously and subconsciously, no matter if it’s a parent or a supervisor at work. Heart-Led Leaders wield this power responsibly. Self-led leaders do the opposite.
I had never fired a client before that day, but enough was enough. I realized that Tim had fostered a toxic culture in that organization. He did not behave compassionately toward other people, and his followers mimicked his poor behavior. I did not want to be associated with an organization that assumed the worst in others. An organization that felt empowered to belittle and humiliate. Over the years I’ve learned that you can always tell the quality of a company’s leadership team based on how employees treat those lower on the organizational chart. At the end of the day, our followers not only watch our actions, but more importantly, they mimic them. If you ever work for a boss like Tim, it’s time to break the cycle. Don’t continue that dangerous game of butterfly with your own followers. Take it from my sister Michele—it HURTS (in all caps)!