The Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is something that has been spoken of for centuries. The picture is of a field of poppies. As you look out, there will be a few poppies growing inches above the others.
In society, we have tall poppies sprout up in every generation. These are the innovators, the visionaries, and the leaders who take big risks. Currently, think of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. Formerly it was Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Individual industries have tall poppies too.
Enter the Cutter
Yet for all the disruption and success a tall poppy leader may build, there is an undercurrent. There are forces wanting to cut down the tall poppy. For ease of discussion, let’s call these forces the “cutters.”
When you dive deep into the story of a specific tall poppy there will always be cutters who appear. The cutter cannot condone the seeming success of the tall poppy, so they cause distractions, challenges, and outright accusations of wrongdoing so that the poppy is undermined.
Cutters are often driven by fear of change. They may not understand the direction the tall poppy is going so they doubt the vision. They begin working hard to be sure the plan fails. The more the tall poppy leader tries to explain the direction, the more the cutter digs in to cause a failure.
I’d venture a guess that if you are reading this and can identify a moment in your leadership journey where you became the tall poppy, you likely had cutters surprise you. Someone you thought was a peer and friend changes once you got that next promotion. Or a neighbor who you enjoyed spending time with suddenly turns on you when you describe a newfound success with your business.
What Can Leaders Do?
If you assert yourself into a significant role and become the tall poppy, beware of TPS. Cutters will emerge. It always happens. There is something in the human psyche that just snaps. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen with everyone, but it does happen with some.
As said above, cutters often operate from fear. Fear of change, fear of being left behind, or fear of being overcome and shut out in the end. Leaders need to identify those who may be showing signs of fear or pushback. Explore the situation. Ask good questions so the person who may be showing the objections can express their doubts.
Let the Haters Hate
Diving straight to the bottom line, I use a blunt but meaningful phrase; let the haters hate. If you stand into a leadership role, there will always be cutters; those who want you to fail. You have to let them do whatever they choose to do. Good leaders stand by their vision, convictions, and values. If those are solid, you can’t worry about the people who want to undermine your effort. Deal with it with grace, patience, and resolve. Let the rest know you are not wavering.
I was introduced to this TPS concept by Doug Garland, M.D., a retired orthopedic surgeon from California. You can read more about him here www.DougGarland.com. He will be a guest on my podcast in the coming weeks.