The purview of leadership stands well beyond the marble halls of Congress and America’s top CEOs. Leaders are the everyday influences that guide the lives of those closest to them. Leaders as parents, mentors, bosses/supervisors/owners have the earnest responsibility to embody love, compassion, and grace - when they don’t, the damage isn’t just immediate but everlasting as the ripples of pain, and inequality move far beyond the immediate four walls. Leadership isn’t a title of enacted power, but a privileged role of influence over one’s oikos, their sphere or influence, that can ripple beyond in pain or love.
In times of divisive, inequality where the voices of the disenfranchised rage like the waves of a powerful ocean against the storied cliffs of power and domination, there has never been a more crucial moment for leaders, everyday leaders, to act as a million tiny lighthouses in the storm. However, in an era of social media, ego, and rampant braggart, we must remember that leadership starts with self, and then silently as a silver laced wave unwraps in the grace of the early morning sun, open unto our oikos, slowly embodying love and leadership not as a battering ram of ego satisfying grandeur, but with a deep knowledge of self and other to gently guide in love and grace those we influence most.
Oikos is a term used both in ancient Greece and in the New Testament of the Bible. In ancient Greek the term Oikos referred to one’s extended household. In modernity we can understand this as 8-15 people who are family, friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors. Your Oikos is your sphere of influence, the area where leadership is going to be most strongly felt and profoundly impactful.
Aristotle draws the link between the individual, as leader to her or his Oikos, and the Polis-city of politics. He states “the city is prior in the order of nature to the family and the individual. The reason for this is that the whole is necessarily prior to the part” (Aristotle, p. 11). He continues on to say that “a city is constituted by the association of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing existence” Family, the home, associations, organizations are the birthplace of society and thus the origin of all the social issues plaguing our society today. While broad, sweeping changes are needed, the birthplace, the origin of change comes from the one’s oikos. Leaders of oikos lead more than just bread breaking and daily action items, they guide society as a whole. It is through this that we can see that one’s ability to influence and lead begins with the self and moves through one’s oikos out into the political realm.
Research has recently begun looking at destructive leadership and abusive supervision. These topics come-on the heels of research into positive leadership models like authentic, transformational, and servant leadership. However, it is through an understanding of the darkness that can reside in leadership that we are better able to understand the qualities, choices, and narratives of truly great leaders, the leaders capable of changing the world, one oikos at a time.
Schyns and Schilling define destructive leadership as “a process in which over a longer period of time the activities, experiences and/or relationships of an individual or the members of a group are repeatedly influenced by their supervisor in a way that is perceived as hostile and/or obstructive.” The use of the word obstructive deserves note, as it means to cause deliberate difficulties and delays. Hoobler & Brass assert that “examples of abusive supervision include a supervisor telling a subordinate that his or her thoughts or feelings are stupid, or putting the subordinate down in front of others.” It is clear that abusive supervision and destructive leadership result in adverse effects on employees, but the ripples extend far beyond the four organizational walls - from the organization, to the oikos, to society.
The initial oikos that poor, abusive, or destructive leadership effects is the organizational one. Schyns found that “destructive leadership seems to have a broader impact in the organization, in so far as employees regard the organization as a whole more negatively. This likely leads to costs for the organization as followers' turnover intention increases…and, probably, their performance decreases… The very strong correlation between destructive leadership and counterproductive work behavior should be particularly worrisome in this respect. The tangible economic impact comes from both costs and decreased revenue. Increased cost from employee absenteeism, employee turnover, and lowered effectiveness, as the result of abusive supervision “affects an estimated 13.6% of U.S. worker..at a cost of $23.8 billion annually for US-companies.” Destructive leadership threatens an organizations very existence.
The toll of destructive leadership extends will beyond profit and loss statements, as employees take home these effects rippling into the oikos of family. Schyns found that “long-term and frequent exposition to destructive behavior from a person that is in charge is likely to cause stress and lead to lower well-being.” This stress doesn’t stay at work or within the individual experiencing the destructive leadership. Hoobler found that “abused subordinates' family members reported a higher incidence of undermining in the home. Taken together, these findings lend support for the proposition that when things go wrong on the job, employees target less powerful others at whose expense they displace their aggression.”
Aggression, lowered well-being, and undermining in the home don’t just retain the ripple within their four walls, but extends into society as a whole. A 2018 study found that “the development of intergroup attitudes is conceivable as the result of the interaction between genetic predispositions, socialization influences, and situational determinants…Children’s attitudes crucially depend on early socialization experiences and therefore are influenced by significant adults…Socializing agents play a role in this process, suggesting children’s intergroup attitudes to be a function of the attitudes of their parents through the process of social transmission.” Early socialization is critical to the development of a more just and equitable society. As such, negative organizational influences can have a profound impact on the manner in which socialization and equality is enacted in the home. If individuals are returning home to “put down” spouses and children as they have experienced in the organizational context, early socialization will take on a negative context. This context is likely to produce negative socialization, self-esteem and poor perceptions of the out-group, which leads to inequality.
Victor Frankl aptly says “the immediate influence of behavior is almost more effective than that of words.” Our behaviors, our actions, as leaders, as humans speak with more volume and weight than our words could ever bare. We must not simply speak about equality, positive leadership, and the well-being of our colleagues and families - we must act. Equality, and other social justice issues, are in critical need of being addressed. Starting with self, leaders must cultivate positive attributes that ripple out through the oikos of their lives until finally reaching Aristotles’ Polis. If you want social justice, a happier family, a better organization - it’s best to start with you.