In recent history, America has faced two international crises that offer clear examples of what happens when a bad decision is made by an Alpha male leader. It both cases, the bad decision was reinforced by the people in his inner circle, seemingly without judgment. This is called the “Janus Effect” in psychology and answers the reoccurring question asked by a worried public: “Why are the people in Donald Trump inner circle unable or unwilling to stand up to him and push back with a different decision?”
In the 1960’s, the first international crises that highlighted the Janus Effect was the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union when the world came very close to World War III. It was a moment in U.S. history when one slight misstep or the slightest misunderstanding between two powerful leaders, Kennedy and Khrushchev, could have launched the world into another war.
The second crises erupted three months after 9/11 when U.S. President George W. Bush began to plan for war with Iraq. At that time the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs was Colin Powell. Driven by the Janus Effect, even Powell found himself going against his own beliefs - stated so clearly in his Powell Doctrine. He join the President in building a case for war and presented it to members of the United Nations. The Powell Doctrine had clearly stated his belief that America could never its send soldiers into harms way unless their leaders did two things: “You must tell them exactly why they are fighting and you tell them exactly how long they are going to be there.”
Powell served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state in 2000, but resigned in 2004 after acknowledging his defense of an Iraq invasion was based on faulty information. Even Colin Powell, the most respected military leader of his time, had been susceptible to the Janus Effect.
What is the Janus Effect?
The Janus Effect comes into play in business or politics the moment an alpha male leader makes a decision that is dead wrong. At this moment, none of the men he has hand-picked for his inner circle are able to go against his wishes because, as his followers, they know exactly what he wants and expects.
For those in his inner circle, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to go against the leader’s wishes even if he asks them point blank: “Give me your opinion!”
Decisions made under the Janus Effect by an alpha male leader are so powerful because the team members will constantly reinforce the alpha male leader’s mindset.They are unable to make a different decision because they believe that to go against their leader carries the risk of becoming ridiculed, ostracized or even exiled from the team.
We need look no further back than our evolutionary history to a time when male hunting groups were led by a strong alpha male. In the same way that a wolf pack sticks together, members of an alpha male’s inner circle stick together. Their deepest fear is to be told point-blank by someone who is deadly serious: “John, You’re not being a team player!” The deeply internalized fear of the team turning against them, of being isolated or exiled, is too much to bear.
So what’s the solution?
The solution is for a leader to surround themselves with an inner circle or cabinet that represents a 50/50 balance of masculine and feminine traits. Why? While men are highly susceptible to the Janus Effect, women are uniquely immune.
Historically speaking, a pregnant woman could not run with the male hunting group. When danger approached, she could not grab her children and run. Instead, her attention was focused was on ensuring the survival of her children her family, and by extension the members of her community. Women who became successful at “tending and befriending” the enemy could then pass along these natural leadership skills to others.
In a modern context instead of a rush to war, women chose negotiation and diplomacy first. It’s hard, for example, to image Angel Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany ever threatening another leader by stating: “We have a bigger nuclear button than yours!”
Highly empathetic leaders are also immune to the Janus Effect. When Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined together in July 2017 to resist the intense pressure and hard-knuckle tactics from party leadership over healthcare, the GOP forgot one thing: Collins and Murkowski were not “Good Old Boys.” Six months later, when Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee released a transcript of Senate testimony by the co-founder of Fusion CPS she too was not acting like one of the “Good Old Boys.” Immune from the Janus Effect, Feinstein was acting on her belief that the public had a right to know what was in the document.
So what’s the bottom line? Decision-making teams that are 50/50 - and based on a balance of male and female traits - make the best decisions precisely because these trait-balanced decisions are immune from the Janus Effect.
When gender equality becomes the “new normal” in corporations and Congress it will free us from the Janus Effect and return America to its role as a global leader.
Alexia Parks is a recognized global expert on gender equality and leadership. She has appeared as an expert on national, international TV news, in TIME magazine, and formerly wrote for the national desk of The Washington Post.