Leaders and Scapegoats

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"Sending out the Scapegoat" by William James Webb (1830-1904)

“Sending out the Scapegoat” by William James Webb (1830-1904)

Every once in a great while, a unique thinker develops a theory that can completely change the way we see the world. Like a lens, the theory brings new things into view where once we saw only chaos.

Such theories can enable us to change our world – for the better or for worse. Take Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example. It  began simply as one man’s hypothesis of reality. But before the century was out it had changed the world in two very different ways: it helped to power cities, and it had helped to level them.

A theory does not have to reveal a physical law in order to be earthshaking. Recently, I have become aware of Rene Girard, a French-born, American academic, who for the last 40 years has been developing a theory about human behavior. Like all great theories, Girard’s has important implications for many disciplines and fields of human knowledge, including leadership and organizational development. Put most succinctly, Girard’s theory is this:

  • We want what others want. We learn what to desire by watching what others desire and then desiring those same things. Girard calls this mimesis or mimicking, and it challenges the common belief that our desires arise spontaneously from within ourselves.
  • If we learn to desire what those around us desire, then this means that we will all tend to desire the same objects (people, things, ideas). When there aren’t enough of the desired objects for everyone, we begin to fight. Girard believes that this is the source of most human conflict and violence.
  • Finally, in order to resolve this conflict, we must find a scapegoat. We blame everything on it, and “sacrifice” it and thereby bring peace, at least temporarily, back to our community. Girard sees evidence of this practice in nearly all of human history and mythology. In ancient times, scapegoats tended to be animals or individuals that could take the blame (undeservedly) and be literally sacrificed. But in modern times we have scapegoats as well, and they have  too often been ethnic and religious minorities who have been blamed with no real justification and then “sacrificed.”
René Girard

René Girard

Interesting theory, but what does it have to do with leadership and organizational development?

The following are three applications of Girard’s theory for those leading and working within organizations to consider:

Follow the Leader

Organizations tend to reflect the values and “spirit” of those who lead them. Girard’s theory explains why this is. The CEO, whether she knows it or not, is daily demonstrating/communicating what she desires. Those who report to her, whether they know it or not, mimic her desires and the desires of those around them. This mimicry cascades down throughout the organization. If the leader desires self-actualization, high ethical standards, excellence, and serving the customer, then chances are, so will the rest of the organization. If the leader desires power, glory, and prestige, then chances are, so will the rest of the organization.

The incredible influence leadership has on the organization is why it is exceedingly difficult for organizations to change through grassroots or middle management efforts. If leadership is not onboard in an effort to transform the culture of an organization, change cannot suffuse the entire organization. On the plus side, it really is possible to radically (and relatively quickly) transform an organization, if leadership is itself radically transformed.


The Root of the Conflict

Girard’s theory also helps us to recognize what is at the root of most conflicts that are present in organizations. When everyone desires the same scarce things, (prestigious positions, huge sums of money, or the sole recognition for an accomplishment), conflict is sure to follow.

The solution is to create organizations in which the desired objects are not scarce. For example, serving the customer, contributing to the team, improving a product, or mastering a skill. These are all infinite objects and if leadership can learn to desire them, then so can everyone else. The pursuit of these infinite objects can then bring people together, rather than tear them apart.


Searching for Scapegoats

Everyone knows that a scapegoat is never the root of the problem, but few people recognize when they are attempting to turn someone else into a scapegoat. Any time we accuse one person in our organization for all of its dysfunction, or one customer for our bad quarter, or one department for missing our numbers, we have probably created a scapegoat. Creating a scapegoat oversimplifies a problem and isolates the accuser from any responsibility. Instead of getting to the root of the problem, it is buried.

Girard’s theory began to take shape only after he had spent years reading literature and studying history. He saw patterns emerge throughout all of human history and across cultures. Aspects of human nature that were impossible for one person or people group to see in themselves became obvious when someone could back up and get the perspective required to see the whole picture. The scope and significance of what Girard had uncovered impacted him so deeply that it led to his conversion to Catholicism in his late 30’s. While Girard’s theory is just that – a theory – it is worth considering because if it’s true it has the potential to change the way we lead our organizations and live our lives.

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