There are scholars who study group dynamics . . . that is, they study the way people behave and interact with one another in a group setting. These scholars sometimes talk about a thing called “the Messiah Complex.” This is a phenomenon that takes place when a group must confront a problem that is so big, so scary, and so fraught with danger that they become paralyzed and unable to make a decision. So they turn to their leader . . . their Messiah . . . and cry, “Save us! Tell us what to do and show us the way to the Promised Land.” If the leader accepts the mantle of Messiah and says, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this. I’ll save the day. We’ll all be fine,” he or she just headed down the same path as that fella who lived a few thousand years ago. As you may recall, things didn’t work out all that well for the real Messiah, nor will they work out well for would-be Messiahs today. The first time the leader makes a mistake, his or her followers will know this isn’t the infallible answer person, the all-seeing, all-knowing leader that they thought he or she was. When that happens, the followers will turn on their leader, and the leader’s days of leading just became significantly more difficult. For more on this and some thoughts on how to avoid falling into the Messiah Complex trap, please continue reading below.
“I haven’t failed. I’ve discovered 10,000 things that don’t work.” ~ Thomas Edison
Many CEOs believe that they must put up a front of infallibility, that they must always be the Answer Person. They run afoul of the Messiah Complex because they’re afraid if they ever say, “I don’t know,” it would be a sign of weakness and their leadership ability would then be called into question. It’s interesting that when leaders fall into the Messiah Complex trap, they only hasten the very thing they’re trying to avoid . . . loss of confidence by their followers.
Tim Hartford, economics writer and business speaker, talks about the “God Complex” which is essentially the same thing as the Messiah Complex. He describes it as “no matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution.” He goes on to say that the world has become a very complicated place with an uncountable number of products and services, scattered over billions of people who live in hundreds of different cultures. As a result, the problems we try to solve can be bewilderingly complicated with an enormous number of variations.
That’s not to say we can’t solve complicated problems. We absolutely can, but we need to jettison the God Complex (the need to be right all the time), approach problems with humility, and adopt a problem-solving technique that actually works: namely, trial and error. After all, through her natural selection process, Mother Nature has been successfully solving problems for millions of years. Medical researchers use trial and error techniques all the time as they look for treatments to intractable diseases. For that matter, trial and error is the problem-solving technique of choice for the entire scientific community. It’s also the technique of choice for many business problems. When we want to bring a new product or service to market, we will often test it in a small area before we roll it out to our entire marketplace. In our marketing efforts, we try different “keywords” to discover what words and phrases resonate the best with our target audience. But as Thomas Edison pointed out as he struggled to invent the electric light bulb, you may make a lot of errors before you finally get it right. If you suffer from the God Complex that’s an issue for you because solving problems by trial and error means you’re probably going to be wrong more often than right.
Kathryn Schulz, who calls herself a “wrongologist”, is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. She points out that culturally, we have stigmatized being wrong. We learn in grade school that if you don’t perform well in class or on tests, you’re labeled “that dumb kid” or worse. Later in life, out in the working world, we learn that being wrong can stifle or even end a career. And this compulsion to be right carries some real human costs as well.
- It prevents us from forming strong, personal relationships with those who disagree with us.
- It prevents us from communicating effectively with those who disagree with us.
- It robs us of opportunities to try out new ideas
So we knock ourselves out trying to be right all the time because it makes us feel good and smart and safe, while being wrong makes us feel just the opposite. But in Schulz’s view, we should not only own up to our fallibility, we should celebrate it because that’s the way we learn, the way we create, and the way we innovate.
Sir Ken Robinson, an expert in education and creativity, said it this way: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Makes sense, doesn’t it? When something is original, it’s unique . . . that is, it’s never been done before, so there’s no way of knowing, for sure, that it will work the way you want it to. Fear of failure has undoubtedly prevented many great ideas from ever seeing the light of day.
Therefore, to avoid the trap of the Messiah Complex (or God Complex, if you prefer), here are a few things you can do:
- Get over yourself. Stop being the Answer Person. You don’t have all the answers. You know it, your followers know it, so stop the charade.
- When you make a mistake, don’t try to hide it, don’t try to ignore it, and absolutely don’t try to shift the blame to someone else. Acknowledge it, own it, and move on.
- When someone asks you to solve a problem for them, don’t do it. Instead, have the self-confidence to say something like, “I dunno. I’ve never come across anything like that before. What do you think we should do about it?”
- Set the tone for trying new things. Make it clear that there’s no shame when a well-intentioned innovation doesn’t turn out the way everybody hoped it would.
- Be a learning place. When something goes wrong, or a mistake is made, or a creative idea doesn’t quite pan out, make it a learning experience. Ask your people, “What did we learn from that?”