Leadership Series (32): How Not To Be Victim Of Sycophant’s By Leaders. By Victor A. Imhangbe

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This is a topic I devoted some special interest because of its importance. Sycophancy is prevalence in both corporate and political leadership position, especially in some parts of developing countries, and it has done incalculable damages to many well intention leaders. According to Fasahnu; sycophancy behaviour is a situation which may be created by a medium continues to praise government or individuals despite ills which might be weakness or incompetence in office: “A sycophant reporter is a journalist who flatters political leaders, wealthy citizens and owners of the media houses who as employers have dread power over and against journalist”.

A leader who is unable to go out of their ways to directly feel the pulse of his/her followers is susceptible to being a victim of sycophancy. For a leader with a well thought out policies and programs to enhance the living condition of his/her people usually tend to carry the people along, even at a time of economic crisis, things are made better if the people leading own up to their challenges in governance and make effort to proffering solution. However, it is even more pathetic when such leader is completely cut out from realities and far away from the people yearning and aspiration. This happens because the level of sycophancy is elevated, and the leader suddenly feels too powerful thereby alienating the ruling class from the people they sworn to care for.

In life according to Macharia Munene; there exist peculiar combinations that tend to be symbiotic. Among them is tyranny and sycophancy, which pervade all levels of governance. Dangerous to institutions and countries, the combination makes leaders blind to clear pitfalls and appear miserable when they fall.

Few leaders start out as tyrants or with desires to be cruel. They slide into it as they become comfortable in being adored and served. Often, they are initially people with authority and good intentions, but not necessarily statutory powers and they command respect, but not fear. In the process, they acquire the image of concerned patrons looking after the interests of their people who feel free to express themselves on what may be going wrong.

They develop a sense of insecurity, mostly unwarranted, victimise former friends, and encourage absolutist tendencies in creeping tyrannical inclinations. Because they appear to be omnipotent in their little ponds, they assume omniscience on everything. That is often a prelude to collapse.

Two types of sycophants can be identified here. The genuine and the fake. The genuine sycophants have inexhaustible capacity to remain a “slave” a happy one at that matter; they are willing to reduce themselves to the lowest level to make the master happy. They are dehumanise people without pain morally and mentally. If there is any pain they feel; is for the oppressor rather than the oppressed and people in this category are more brutal than their principal.

The second type, the fake and mercenary one, is dangerous to the tyrant and is a very serious actor. They have the ability to play the “happy slave” role successfully, appear to demean themselves, pretend not to have a mind of their own, and put up a happy face façade while sulking internally. They are skillful in warming their way into the bosom of the boss by studying the weaknesses of the system and of the master.

They even appear to be “democratic.” Once they are in statutory offices, commanding obedience by law, they systematically appear to lose touch. As they enjoy the deference shown to their office, they develop a habit of ignoring sound advice or analysis that is not pleasant to their egos. They seek ego massage as they wantonly engage in the corruption of exploiting their people, ignore genuine grievances, and feel fulfilled by instilling fear rather than cultivating respect.

Common Language Used By Bootlickers

There are specific examples of bootlickers especially in Africa. President Mugabe has been referred to as the “Son of God”, a divine appointee whose decisions are beyond criticism. Referring to Mugabe’s former Information Minister; Webster Shamu publicly declared that “…people say you have Cremora, the whole body.” Worse still, some Ministers in Zimbabwe have openly said that given a choice, they would have applied to be Mugabe’s children. Some went further to even calling him God. A Senior Special Assistant to former Nigeria President, Doyin Okupe, said “President Jonathan is like Jesus Christ, who the Christian faithful call the saviour of the world”.

In Botswana for instance, Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi have praised President Ian Khama’s “perfect” leadership, contrary to the masses opinion. Mr. Masisi’s took his sycophancy to another level in a video clip, which went viral on Facebook which goes thus: “I’m not only bootlicking at Domkrag, I also bootlick royals. I wonder where your future lies if you are not a bootlicker, who is going to save you !’ Note that the word Domkrag characterise the BDP; Botswana Ruling Party; which in Afrikaans literally translates to a fool’s strength.

I‘ve gone through an article written by a well-respected columnist titled “Goodluck Jonathan was an exceptional president”. This was a President that supervises one of the greatest and mindless looting of Nation’s treasury in Nigeria history. The President whose minister of Finance claimed; was borrowing money to pay salaries when the price of crude oil sales was above $100 per barrel. The President who was quoted as signing memo’s for the importation of toothpick and admitted he never read the said memo before appending his signature; the man that made top military personnel overnight billionaire on frivolous defense allocation. It turns out most of his vicious praise singers were beneficiary of funds that were originally disbursed for  arms purchase on war against terror.For a leader who is desirous of making impact and fulfills those promises you have made to the organisation, it is paramount to have the innate ability to identify bootlickers around you.

How To Identify Sycophants
According to Kenneth Nkemnacho,”to manage sugar-coated tongues, you must first know how to identify them if you’re genuinely desirous of truth, honesty and fairness”. To his understanding, he opine that sycophants;

  • Never criticise your wrong in spite of the obvious: As humans, there are certain decisions we make or actions we take that from within, we know they are wrong. But when someone around you, in spite of the glaring evidences doesn’t see anything wrong in every of those decisions or actions, that person may pose a big problem to you. Every wrong you do is right to a leech.
  • Never take a stand on anything: Until a sycophant or sugar-coated tongue hears your own opinion, he never takes his stand. The moment you declare your position, he immediately assumes that position.
  • Pose like someone who wants to help: Where help isn’t needed, they want to help. Where advice isn’t required, they want to advice.
  • Are men-pleasers: They please with an intention. They please with a goal in their hearts.
  • Fence you from good people: Sycophants and sugar-coated tongues know good and genuine people. The moment they spot any of these people getting close to you, they look for means to discredit them so that they take you far away from them. They understand that your closeness with such people will dilute their closeness to you.
  • Are gossips: In order to pretentiously care, one negative attribute of sycophants and sugar-coated tongues is gossip. They whisper into your ears what everyone is doing, especially those they consider as threats.

How To Deal With Sycophants
1. Discernment: This is by having or showing good judgment at all time. If you are talented to always have deep and sensitive thoughts; it will help you to intuitively understand the mindset of people around you. Expending your intuitive senses is very important in succeeding in life, career, profession or talent. Don’t be trapped by spicy words or attitude; determine who is truly right, and what is genuinely right. Make your decisions; make right decisions.

2. Check their motive: When people become too close for comfort, take the extra time to find out what their motive is. Ask yourself some salient question like ‘”Why is this person doing this?” “What does he have to gain?”’ It is impossible to handle such people without knowing their true motive. Knowing the intention will help you realise what they stands to benefit, and if the gain is ulterior, take it away. The moment it is taken away, the person’s attitude will change.

3. Don’t Show Affection: When you openly show positive affection to the activities of sycophants and sugar-coated tongues. There is the likelihood; you will encourage such people to carry on with their acts. Some people love the attention until it harms them. When it harms, it becomes almost too late.

4. Admit your mistakes: When your conscience told you frankly of a wrong decision, you don’t need anyone else to tell you something otherwise. If you are convinced of taking a wrong step and someone is trying to praise you for it, it is within your prerogative to rebuke such person as enemy of your administration. Being dishonest with your actions and decisions opens the gate for sycophants and sugar-coated tongues to walk in.

5. Don’t take credit for every achievement: You may have made significant achievement that warrant praise, however, give the credit to your subordinates; who contributed to the success. Often times, we have seen successful sports men and women given credit to the entire team for the success recorded. That’s what you should do. When that is done all the time, sycophants and sugar-coated tongues will hide their faces.

Practical Steps to curtail bootlicker’s excesses

According to Machiavelli” you know who they are: the people around you who praise your every decision, who tell you how smart you are, how wise you are, how brave you are, what a nice suit you are wearing today”. The people in this category are flatterers, the sycophants, the smooth talkers. They are dangerous because it’s so easy to fall for their sweet words. Machiavelli opine “There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except by letting men understand that you will not be offended if they tell you the truth …” He however warns  rulers not to grant this freedom to speak freely to everyone, but reserve it for your trusted inner circle, and only then when you ask for it.

Realistically, “When everyone feels free to tell you the truth, respect for you dwindles… A wise prince should take another course: choose wise men for your advisors, and allow only them the liberty of speaking the truth to the prince, and only on matters about which you ask, and nothing else. But you should question them about everything, listen patiently to their opinions, then form your own conclusions later.” According to Han Fei Tzu; limiting the ability of your advisors to speak freely also limited the opportunities for them to gang up on you over issues they want to pursue, or to conspire against you:

Encourage your closest advisors and staff to be honest and open with you: but only when you ask for it. Warn them that you won’t tolerate dissemination or flattery. “He should listen to no one outside of these councillors, separately or collectively. He should let each of them know that, the more freely he speaks, the more he shall be respected. Then after listening, carry out your decision, and be steadfast in your resolve about it.”

A leader who is susceptible to bootlickers is indecisive according to Machiavelli. It is difficult to really know what they want, or what is expected, because the rules keep changing, even it become a game among flatterers that whoever is last to speak to you determines your decision. The way out is discourage unsolicited advice, but ensure you seek frequent advice from trusted aids. Who are the trusted aids? They are people you have known for their frankness, bluntness when it comes to giving you sincere and honest advice. They are people who are highly principled who are not intimidated by your position and social status. You must make it compulsory to fire people when they give you bad advice.

Your advisors should be capable, competent and honest. You will reward them for their efforts, but don’t give away all your power or responsibility. It will be hard to regain it and you may lose much more in a power play against you:
It is however very unfortunate that most newly elected political leader have develop a habit of engaging numerous advisor as a reward for political contribution, and in the process will be unable to identify who gives the best advice. The way out is to stick to a chosen few.

You should be very alert to identify people that really need your administration progress. Flatterers understand that, as new person learning the rope, flattery can be used effectively by your aids to gain favours against the interest of the masses. Watch out for who tell you how smart you are, what great leadership you’ve shown, or how well you handled that debate, especially if you know you’re still learning the ropes. You should immediately release your warning bells, instead of believing it. No matter the circumstance, if you are a leader with utmost interest of your people, you will go for advisor that will truly look you on your face and tell you the truth that may hurt your personal ego, only a true advisor will tell you that.

It is a known fact that power is intoxicating and addictive. Often time power does change our personality if we allow it to go to our heads. We have seen where a once humble personality suddenly develops hubris. When our self-confidence and pride reach excessive levels, a leader with good intention will be negatively influence to think they are god and shun good advice and embrace flatterer. Be warned not to be a victim of absolute power influence.

The above analysis has given us the clue on the antics of sycophants and possible steps to get rid of them by a well-intended leader. My next series will discuss how allowing your subordinate’s initiative as leader contributes to your achievement. Your opinion and feedback is appreciated on the comment column. Do you like the piece? It’s always good to share.

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