Will We Ever Grow Weary of the Destructive “Strongman” Trope in the Workplace?

Higher Education Can Help If We're Up to the Challenge

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) recently announced his resignation, marking the potential fall of yet another powerful cisgender man due to sexual harassment allegations. The accusations leveled against him are damning. No less than 11 women have come forth with stories of unwanted touching, kissing, and groping by the governor. Not surprisingly, Governor Cuomo denies all accusations and evoked his relationship with his daughters in one of the most strikingly brazen attempts to garner sympathy I have ever witnessed.

These alleged sexual harassment charges are purportedly not the governor’s only transgressions. He is also accused of bullying and other forms of harassment, including quid pro quo dealing and having his staff ghostwrite his book, for which he netted a $5.1 million deal.

Governor Cuomo’s alleged behavior fits neatly into a standard yet tired workplace trope of what is frequently called strongman or authoritarian leadership. Others ascribe this trope to toxic masculinity. Whichever label we elect to apply to it, the patterns are the same. People who subscribe to strongman/authoritarian behavior negatively leverage and wield their positional authority for their gain (paywalled). Strongman personalities also tend to exude extreme stereotypical masculine behavior such as boastfulness, loudness, and dominance over others.

Much of this behavior runs afoul of the understood workplace social contract of mutual respect and obeying EEOC law. Moreover, strongman personalities have a unique and uncanny ability to move from one position to the next, often gaining more power and authority along the way. Every sector (including higher education) has strongman personalities, yet it is rare that these individuals’ poor workplace behavior is addressed until it reaches a boiling point. That boiling point for many organizations is harassment lawsuits and/or damage to an organization’s reputation.

Strongman behavior is fundamentally destructive and inappropriate. Equally uncanny is how many people (across ethnicities, gender expressions, and socioeconomic backgrounds) seem to not only accept bad workplace behavior from strongman personality types but also participate in odd expressions of bystanderism (paywalled) and accommodation (paywalled). This bystanderism allows the strongman personality to run amok in the workplace, leaving damaged professional reputations in their wake.

The research varies on why strongman/authoritarian leadership continues to thrive in the modern workplace (paywalled). Some studies suggest that individuals conflate narcissistic behavior with leadership characteristics. This is a mystery to me as most workers surveyed will say that they oppose narcissistic personalities in the workplace yet seem drawn to leaders who express these negative characteristics.

Given all of the #MeToo and other harassment cases that have emerged over the past few years, something has to give. More than four million people have elected not to return to the workplace in the US. Many of them cite poor leadership among their reasons.

I believe that higher education plays a critical role in helping to stamp out strongman/authoritarian leadership. It is essential for higher education scholars to conduct more research on how and why lousy leadership is allowed to blossom (in addition to studying the impact of bad leadership on others). Scholars can consult with organizations of all sizes to construct the necessary cultural guardrails to protect workers and not allow bad leadership to perpetuate itself in the workplace.

The ongoing COVID crisis has brought forth a re-examination of many long-standing workplace practices, including authoritarianism. It is time to call the strongmen onto the “carpet” of accountability and show them the door. This ugly trope must be permanently eradicated from our workplaces.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.