Episode 43

How Executive Worship Murders Your Success

Published on: 23rd May, 2022

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In this episode...

How Executive Worship Murders Your Success

Episode 43 of the Faithful on the Clock challenges the popular practice of executive worship. Find out what this habit is and how breaking it can boost your career.


[00:05] - Intro

[00:32] - A post online by a woman made me wonder why we have some executives that are simultaneously worshipped on pedestals (really popular) but also hated in other circles.

[01:24] - Many executives want shortcuts to success because of cultural constructs and look at people like Jeff Bezos as proof a shortcut or copying the exceptions can work.

[02:26] - It’s normal to want someone to look up to, but we’ve also been conditioned to believe in versions of the great man theory.

[04:22] - The great man theory is problematic because it puts people on a pedestal even though new research shows people become more likable if they are flawed and, subsequently, relatable (the pratfall effect).

[05:18] - A study involving the accomplishments of famous scientists demonstrated the pratfall effect. 

[06:17] - The business world is aware of the pratfall effect, but there is a clash between pratfall and great man that’s very confusing for workers. Workers are fed up with the “perfect” examples offered that contradict pratfall, especially as leaders stress the need for authenticity.

[08:06] - Executive worship holds you back because it forces you to focus on someone you can’t even relate to. The antidote is to find leaders in your own community who can give you time and who understand you.

[09:02] - Dr. Anne Bradley honed in on Romans 15:1-2 to show the characteristics of a real hero.

[09:32] - Asking yourself questions based on Romans 15:1-2 can help you filter mentor choices and find a better match. The mentors who are ideal are the ones who set their ego aside and chose to help others in empathy.

[11:15] - Everyone praised Goliath, but David ended up defeating him. Look for the Davids you can follow, or be one yourself.

[12:26] - Prayer

[13:00] - Outro/What’s coming up next

Key takeaways:

  • An online post about Elon Musk made me question why people like Elon Musk are both incredibly popular and hated. 
  • Cultural constructs make us want to take shortcuts to success. We look at people like Jeff Bezos and think that because they managed to be an exception, we somehow can figure out how to be, too.
  • It’s normal for people to look for role models. But researchers mistakenly developed the “great man” theory of leadership, which is based on the idea that leaders are born not made, and that they have specific traits. We still follow much of this concept and try to figure out what characteristics people like Elon Musk have that we ought to be developing. 
  • The great man theory directly contrasts the pratfall effect, which has shown that people relate to others better if those other people have some flaws and imperfections. Research based on the stories of famous scientists demonstrated the pratfall effect in a way that’s applicable to leadership and mentoring. 
  • Executives are creating confusion by simultaneously talking about authenticity while upholding old hero or great man leader ideologies. This leaves people without good examples to follow and disgusted with the popular people on pedestals.
  • Finding backyard mentors is a powerful antidote to executive worship.
  • Romans 15:1-2 can offer guidance on what a hero needs to be for you. It emphasizes leaders who set their egos aside to make a difference.
  • Popular leaders who are “worshipped” today are similar to Goliath in that they have enormous influence, ego, and power. But David toppled him. Find the Davids around you, or better yet, become one for someone else.


  • Identify some of the executives you’ve been worshipping lately. Be specific about why you thought they were so awesome and consider Romans 15:1-2.
  • Look into your own community for people who can meet your needs. Initiate a conversation with those individuals.

What’s coming up next:

Episode 43 of Faithful on the Clock dives into authenticity. How can you tell if someone’s faking it, and is it an issue if authenticity is all anybody talks about?

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Hey, all! Welcome back to the Faithful on the Clock podcast. I’m your host, Wanda Thibodeaux, and this show is gonna highlight something I think will really change your concept of mentoring and role models. We’re talking executive worship. I’ll explain what that is and why it’s important to ditch the habit in just a sec.


OK, people. So to get us started, I just want to tell you, I was online, and I happened to see this post, and this was just after they’d announced that Elon Musk had bought Twitter, right? And I saw this post from this woman who just went off about him, and how she was just sick of hearing about not just Elon Musk, but you know, about any of the executives that have kind of become household names, like Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos or any of those people. And so I started to wonder, well, why is it that these people, you know, if you Google any of them, you’ll get millions of results, right? Like, why are they so popular, and yet, at the same time, we’ve got people like this woman just kind of clobbering them and talking about how she can’t stand all the articles and content she keeps seeing about them?


So, I think in the United States at least, we always have–I mean, we’re fed this idea that everything is so competitive, and that that’s hard, right? It’s scary. And I don’t think any of us really want to work our tails off. We’d much rather be sipping something on a beach somewhere. And so I think we’re always looking for shortcuts to the top. We’re always trying to find people who have sort of beat the system and become successful really quickly, and we want to figure out, you know, their script so we can see if we can reproduce it and be successful, too. I think for executives and managers and other people at the top, people like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, they might be super exceptions to the rules about what actually happens to most leaders, but it’s kind of like playing the lottery. Sure, we might know the odds stink, but we look at them and say, well, it is possible, so I’m still going to try to hack this system and, you know, find all the right numbers for myself.


Now, two quick things about this. The first is that it is 100 percent normal for you to want somebody to look up to. All of us, that’s just part of being social creatures. We’re constantly looking for others to show us the ropes so we can fit in and find our place in the group. So in that sense, it doesn’t surprise me at all that leaders would try to find what they’d consider the top dog or alpha and mimic those people. But the second thing is, there is a conditioning to this, too. There’s something called the great man theory of leadership. And this is where researchers, they took a look at a lot of leaders across history, and they noticed that a lot of time, you’d see a lot of leaders within families. And what was happening was, the aristocrats who had power and authority, they’d just gift family members these leadership positions. But the researchers didn’t really look at how effective these leaders were, right? So because all they saw was all these leaders from one family, the researchers thought that leadership was divinely given or that you’d gain the traits you needed through your bloodline. So that led to this whole school of thought, you know, leaders are born, not made, and people started to really obsess over the traits these leaders had that made them unique, things like charisma or having grit. And even a century later, that’s still everywhere. We might have adapted and accepted that we all can learn, but that concept is still colored by this idea that success means honing specific traits. It’s in our movies, our leadership articles, and everybody still is trying to focus on those traits in self-development. And so when you look at people like Elon Musk, we still have this idea that they are where they are because they had something special that we just need to grow or copy.


All that said, here’s the problem. The great man theory kind of puts people on a pedestal, right? Like, it makes it hard to see that a leader is human or has flaws and messes up, because there’s so much focus on their good traits. But research tells us that people don’t want perfect role models. They actually want people who get it wrong once in a while. There’s some great work by psychologists Emily Kleszewski and Kathleen Otto I’ll give you a link to, but they looked at perfectionists at work and found that coworkers really didn’t rate the perfectionists well. They thought the perfectionists were hard to get along with. And there’s something called the pratfall effect, where researchers have demonstrated that the way people view you actually improves when you flub up a little. And all of it is this idea that, for someone to be likeable, they also have to be relatable.


And there was actually another study where researchers split participants into three groups. And the first group, they heard these really straightforward facts about theories from scientists like Albert Einstein. A second group had everything presented where the theories, the accomplishments of the scientists got a lot of praise. And then a third group, they learned about what the scientists had done, but they also heard about what the scientists had been through and struggled with. And the researchers found that, when they told people about just the scientists’ accomplishments, the participants formed really stereotypical views of the scientists. But when they told participants about the scientists’ struggles, though, the participants were more interested in science, they remembered what they’d learned better, and they performed better on problem-solving tasks related to the information they’d learned. So that’s just really interesting to me, because it kind of shows you what the pratfall effect looks like in real life.


Now, the business world is not stupid, OK. We know about the pratfall effect. That is one of the reasons why this old-school idea of perfect leaders is dying out, and why we’re stressing concepts like authenticity so hard. We’re talking all the time about, quote, managing your legitimacy, or how to handle your image and vulnerability so people like and follow you. But we’ve got a situation now where we’ve got pratfall kind of butting heads with the great man theory. And at least in my view, we’ve developed this disconnect, right? We’ve got upper-level executives seeing people like Jeff Bezos as, you know, the great man and idealizing them. But then at the same time, these executives are talking to their workers about how it’s good to be authentic and everything. And that’s super confusing. And we’ve got the typical worker who says, you know, people like Jeff Bezos, not only are people like that totally unrelatable to me–you know, I don’t have billions of dollars, right?--but those kinds of people, they’re not perfect the way a lot of executives hold them up to be. That’s why you see all these articles talking about what a genius Jeff Bezos or whoever is, and at the same time, you get other pieces that are covering workers forming unions and protesting corruption or unsafe practices and all of these really unethical things. And I think a lot of people, like the woman I mentioned at the top of the show, they’re just sick of hearing about these so-called great leaders, because a lot of the examples that executives hold up for them, they’re not just flawed, they’re flat out corrupt. And so I think people see that and they’re just kind of protesting because they need someone who's better.


So, in my view, executive worship, it holds you back because it means you focus on somebody you can’t even relate to. A lot of these hero leaders, they’re not gonna have the time to mentor anybody, and even if they did, they haven’t been in your community. They can’t spend hours a day with you, guiding you or shaping you. So my antidote to all of this is, let go of the famous executives and find yourself a mentor within your own area. I promise you, you look around, there are all kinds of people, really knowledgable, skilled people, who can change your life. That’s why I focused so hard on mentorship in Episode 34, because I truly believe that one of the best things you can do for yourself and your career is to find somebody who can support you for years and who can understand you on a truly deep level.


Now, to tie this all back to God, which is always my drive, I want to share a piece I happened to find published a couple of years ago by Dr. Anne Bradley for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. And Dr. Bradley took Romans 15:1-2 pulled out three characteristics of a hero. And those three key characteristics were helping those in need, supporting weaker people with the strengths we’ve got, and contributing to the welfare of our neighbors.


And so, when you look at all these people in the headlines, or when you look for a mentor, hold up those characteristics. Is the person you’re considering a helper by nature who is actually capable of meeting the needs you have? What specific strengths do they have that are going to lift you up? And then, how is what they’re doing benefitting people socially? How are they building a better life for our sisters and brothers in a way God would be proud of? And when you ask those kinds of questions, you can start to see, OK, maybe this person is pretty great, but they’re not gonna be my hero. They’re a better fit for somebody else. And it kind of filters people for you so your odds of good mentor match go up. And I think what you’ll find with those questions is that, people who really make a difference, the people who really set up the next generation of leaders, their story is not about their rise to the top. It’s not about how they landed investors or their approach to innovation, or how much money they’ve got in their bank account. Their story is about how they set their ego aside and used everything they had to give other people something better than what they had. It’s about them empathizing and then saying, “Because I understand, I’m going to teach you how to get out.” Those are the people to find. Those are the people to put your attention on, because they’re not perfect, but they get it. They’ve walked where you walked. And they can take the time to pull you up where you need to be.


The last point is, think of the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. Everybody was so hung up on how great Goliath was, on how nobody could beat him. They were scared of him. And Goliath, he was cocky. He went out and challenged the Israelite soldiers, taunted them. And in a lot of ways that’s how I personally see a lot of the people we write all the articles about. They see themselves as too big to fail, at least in my opinion. And well, what happened in the end? David took his slingshot out to battle, and before you know it, David had cut off Goliath’s head with Goliath’s own sword. So what I want to leave you with is, don’t be somebody who worships Goliath. Look for the David’s of the world. Better yet, see that you can be a David, because you can. You absolutely can take the things you’ve got, however simple they might seem to anybody else, and use them to do incredible things for yourself and those around you. That is what gives life meaning, it is one of the reasons you are here, and God will give you the confidence to do battle if you just ask.


So let me close out with a prayer.

God, you designed us to look to others to just see if we’re OK. But we have all of these pressures on us and all of these biases and outdated ideas clouding how we think. And I pray today that you will show us people right in our own backyards who are worth imitating, and that you’ll give us the confidence to go out against the Goliaths of the world when you need us to do so. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.


Well, I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m ready for lunch. So let’s wrap it up, you get something to nourish your body now that you’ve nurtured your mind and spirit a little. And in the next episode, we’ll talk about authenticity. How can you tell when somebody’s faking it, and what happens when it’s all anybody talks about? Go sign up for our email list if you haven't to make sure you get episodes of the show right in your inbox, and I’d love to have you check out our Challenge Me Monday sessions, too. Find out all about those on our Twitter page, @FaithfulOTC. Take care, and until next time, be blessed.

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Faithful on the Clock
Faithful on the Clock is a podcast meant to get your Christian faith and work aligned. You won’t find mantras or hacks here--just scripture-based insights to help you grow yourself, your company, and your relationship with God. If you want out of the worldly hamster wheel and want to work with purpose, then this is the show for you. Hosted by freelance business writer Wanda Thibodeaux.
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Wanda Thibodeaux

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux is a freelance writer based in Eagan, MN. Since 2006, she has worked with a full range of clients to create website landing pages, product descriptions, articles, professional letters, and other content. She also served as a daily columnist at Inc.com for three years, where she specialized in content on business leadership, psychology, neuroscience, and behavior.

Currently, Thibodeaux accepts clients through her website, Takingdictation.com. She is especially interested in motivational psychology, self-development, and mental health.