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Many Leaders Opt for Style Over Substance

A Personal Perspective: Unethical people can leverage their style to gain power.

Lies and deceit are on the rise. In the 2020s, we often observe shifty and unethical leaders who dazzle and deceive. Bad behavior is turning into a malignant art form. Devious bosses and politicians seduce, fascinate and manipulate. We are besieged by leaders who master false claims, slippery ethics, smiling lies, and devious, decadent doublespeak. Stylized deception buries substance. Businesses preach and secretly pollute.

Looks, demeanor, and swag have caught fire. It is a tyranny of style. Lookers and smooth operators rule. If you allegedly lack style, your career and prospects may suffer. Style is micro-scrutinized. A credible, ethical boss is captured out of context at a bad moment, is dissed online, and becomes a global loser. Then notice the elegant drape and continental demeanor of a boss ruling with malice. Is he judged by his swag? See the rumpled look of a well-intentioned CEO who is viewed as obsolete. Observe the wild hair of a brilliant top ten senior professor who is judged on the surface as a 1960’s exile.

In the 2020s style dazzles and destroys and appearances tell the story. Or does it? Are we mesmerized and misled by the veneer, the outer shell of our bosses, politicians, and romantic interests? Are we sufficiently awake to detect seduction and manipulations? Dazzle requires caution. Slick, seductive, and gorgeous liars are abundant.

Style and appearances are worshiped. Evidence and data are trivialized. Regional dialects and rumpled clothing may mean a boss or a political candidate is canceled. Style over substance. Body shape, fashion, diction, and attractiveness compete with and displace old-school knowledge and smarts.

Observe how a suave well-spoken and unethical attorney can win a jury over. A multimillion-dollar verdict may be decided based on a trial lawyer’s ability to seduce the court with his Manhattan style, expensive smile, and ability to tap into the emotions of every juror. Although the attorney’s arguments are weak, he dazzles with his couture presence, cool voice, hypnotic eyes and outer seductive glow of confidence.

In the corporate world, I have coached CEOs who know how to influence executives due to their talent as public speakers. These professional persuaders are world class when it comes to influencing impatient executives who make high stake decisions. Lacking sufficient data, evidence and substance the talented orator dazzles an audience with a dance of words, inflection, high-brow language and poetic jive 'n gibberish. Bosses seduce investors, climb up corporate ladders and cut deals by means of world class presentational style. The slick orator first cultivated by ancient ancient Greek rhetoricians has resurfaced in the torrential 2020s. Seductive and manipulative speakers continuously reinvent their roles as influencers, be it live or virtual. I witness seducers sorely lacking in ethics who somehow manage to sell “B grade” deals.

Let’s get seriously superficial. Can an unethical yet dramatic business leader who is wearing a $4,000 British tailored suit and displays dapper old school demeanor, perfectly coiffed hair and continental conversational charm enchant savvy investors? Yes! No matter how much style is mocked and demeaned, appearances do nevertheless sway mega-deals. Speaking voice, eloquence, folksiness, and an ability to bond with executives, customers and voters is key in getting to yes.

One senior board member shared his response to a persuasive yet vacuous executive’s presentation. He whispered that the presenter was 95% swanky style and 5% substance. He was so alarmed that his associates had been duped into investing 25% of the company’s assets. He confessed in confidence that his company was paying 125% for third best. And he muttered that this slick influencer was way too smooth for his slow-witted and highly credentialed colleagues.

Style encompasses speaking voice and mannerisms. If you want to dazzle employees, your accent, dialect, and savoir faire can be critical. Lack of a certain unspoken polish and assuredness may disrupt deeply, alienate the offender and be a deal breaker. It is both shocking and disappointing to find professionals ridiculing a highly trained colleague who is different. Surely this does not seem possible in the 2020s. But not only do self-anointed style masters dazzle and deceive they also function as style troopers and gatekeepers. For example, New Jersey or Appalachian mountain workplace dress and business-speak may be judged as unacceptable and substandard in Brooklyn or Boise, violating the heart and soul of workplace diversity. So much for differences and innovation. Such “style crimes” are perpetuated in the trenches by bosses in the 2020s who can be identified as “style terrorists.”

Style should never be underestimated. It can be the unethical boss’s ticket to ride as he or she dazzles, deceives, and destroys. Style is on trial in the 2020s. Style is wild. Style sways and controls. It is an ancient Greco-Roman juggling and balancing act between style and substance. We must, however, guard substance, logic, science, data, and speech from being twisted, contorted, trivialized, ostracized, and cancelled. If we allow bullies to rule our workplaces, then we are in trouble. We must prioritize substantive data or we are in danger of being duped by toxic bosses who are eloquent yet vile. Let us not ordain bosses as style troopers. Unethical leaders who glorify and proliferate a menu of dazzle, seduction and deception must be called out. The charade of appearances and heartless, soulless, data starved style is not what we are truly about. In the extreme, it’s an aberration and fuels the toxic leader. Beware. Appearances deceive. Style's on trial in the 2020s.

References

Sullivan, P. (May 29, 2021); How to Tell if a Company is Truly Ethical, N.Y.: The New York Times, Section B, page 6; New York Edition;

PON Staff (August 10, 2021); Ethics in Negotiations: How to Deal with Deception at the Bargaining Table; Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation Daily Blog; (www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/dealing-with-difficult-people-daily/dealing-w…);

Korkki, P. (March 8, 2015); Bosses Who Love Themselves. New York: The New York Times, Section BU, Page 3; New York edition;

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