Leaders – Are You A Sucker For “Suck-ups”?

I have been reviewing leadership profiles as part of custom designing leadership development programs in over 60 major corporations.  I see that most organizations describe the behavioral indicators for leadership that is so obvious. They include behaviors like “communicates a clear vision,” “helps people to develop to their maximum potential,” “strives to see the value of differing opinions,” and “avoids playing favorites.”

Leadership respect

Not one has ever included the desired behavior that read “effectively sucks up to senior management and to the board”.

Given the overwhelming data that goes to show how often such behavior is rewarded in organizations, I thought “sucking up” should probably make it to the list and as the number one indicator for you to succeed.

While almost every company I’ve worked with says it wants people to “challenge the system” and to “be empowered to express your opinion” and “say what you really think,”; I come across a lot of performers who are stuck as they are not so much into sucking up.

It’s not just that companies claim to dislike and discourage such behaviors, even leaders say so in no uncertain terms.

Almost all the leaders say that they would never encourage such a thing in their teams and organizations. I am at no point doubting their sincerity in this regard.  I am sure you get disgusted easily by those so-called “a**e li***rs. 

That raises an important question: If leaders say they discourage sucking up, why does such behavior dominate the workplace? I must argue that these leaders are generally very adept at sizing up people and calibrating their responses based on continual interactions.  Yet, most seem to fall prey to people who are highly skilled at suck-ups. They still end up playing favorites.

The problem possibly could be that they are not able to see in themselves, what they so clearly see in others.  They might not realize that all along they might be sending subtle signals that encourage their team members to be mute on their criticisms and be high on their praise for the powers that be.

I worked under one such manager who used to get the jitters when I used to challenge my top management on issues that demanded their attention.  He always used to pull me aside and advise that I shouldn’t be raising these issues and that the management is already aware of the matter.  I used to see him always singing praises of his bosses even when some of their ideas sucked.

It surprises me how some leaders and managers cannot see it in themselves. Now you may think “this doesn’t apply to me.” Maybe you’re right. But how can you be so sure you’re not in denial?

Let me take an example.  Ask anyone who has ever owned a dog or heard stories from those who own one as to “who gets their maximum attention and affection at home?”.  Almost unanimously they say it’s their dog.  Ask them why?  They reply in unison that they do because they get unconditional love, the dogs never talk back at them, they never argue and accept whatever is given to them.  What they don’t realize is that the dogs suck up to them.  Most people unabashedly claim that they like those who can accept them for who they are.  What in effect they are trying to tell you is that no matter my idiosyncrasies, please suck up to me.

If we aren’t careful, we can end up treating people at work like dogs. Rewarding those who heap unthinking, unconditional admiration upon us. What behavior do we get in return? A virulent case of promoting the suck-ups. The net result is obvious. You end up encouraging behavior that serves you, but not necessarily the best interests of your organization.

As a leader, you can change all that and do the best for your team by first acknowledging that you have a tendency to favor those who favor you, even if you don’t mean to.


A quick analysis by answering the following questions will provide you with a measure.

“In your meetings with your team, do you often get more people agreeing to your line or keeping quiet when compared to those who oppose or provide contrarian views?” 

“Do you like people who openly challenge some of the decisions or proposals you make?

If you have fewer challenges and like people who toe your line, then that’s the indicator that you are playing favorites and growing suck-ups in your company.  I know it will be hard to accept but being honest with yourself will be the beginning of taking your leadership to the level of authenticity that it demands.  A quick analysis like this is not sufficient and deeper analysis will be required by seeking feedback.



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