Recently, Geelong hosted two significant mental health events on the same day. In the evening, Hero Town Geelong introduced Philip Zimbardo, one of the world’s most prominent psychologists, who led a discussion after an advanced screening of The Stanford Prison Experiment. The film depicted his 1971 experiment in which students role-playing prison guards became violent toward their peers, whilst those role-playing prisoners allowed themselves to be subjected to serious abuse. Others stood by and let it happen, displaying the bystander effect.
This experiment demonstrated the extent to which people’s behaviour could be shaped by their situation, despite them usually acting decently. Zimbardo was shocked by his own poor behaviour whilst role-playing a prison superintendent. He allowed the abuse to continue largely unchecked for six days before discontinuing the two-week study.
What then happened was a salutary lesson of excellence in leadership. Zimbardo fully acknowledged his error. He then committed himself to helping people recognise and counter abusive behaviours, resulting in his famous Heroic Imagination Project. Geelong is currently the only place in Australia to introduce this training.
That morning Jeff Kennett, the former premier of Victoria, appeared on behalf of Beyond Blue at a breakfast attended by several hundred people to review and encourage local progress in introducing mental health initiatives in the workplace. Unfortunately, in my view, Mr Kennett did not fulfill that role well. Many examples of terrific local initiatives were offered, including Hero Town Geelong and the internationally recognised Positive Psychology Institute at Geelong Grammar. These organisations have brought prominent world leaders to offer exceptional training in Geelong. This is an unqualified boon to the town, leading the rest of Australia in their efforts.
Rather than properly acknowledging and applauding these major initiatives, Mr Kennett chose instead to express his objection to an anecdotal incident purportedly occurring at the school. He was not prepared to elaborate on the incident when I approached him afterward.
Now, if I understand Zimbardo’s message correctly, we should call out the misuse of positions of authority and unfair actions toward others. Well, here goes.
Jeff, your behaviour was out of line. You were dismissive of many achievements mentioned that morning. Rather than recognising such exemplary local strengths and achievements to build upon, as a positive psychology approach would have us do, you maligned a local institution on the seeming basis of hearsay. You then chose to emphasise that local progress was not sufficient to satisfy you as an individual, seemingly seeking to enhance your supposed personal relevance at the cost of the community that you were purporting to serve. In my view, your behaviour represented an autocratic misuse of a position of authority. The main thing I got out of your attendance was a vivid contrast in leadership style to that of Zimbardo.
That evening, Zimbardo’s ready acknowledgement of problems in his own autocratic misuse of an authority position, albeit in the role-play situation of a psychology experiment, left me feeling enlightened. His response in developing the Heroic Imagination Project left me feeling uplifted. His contribution to Geelong that week left me grateful. Your presence that morning just left me feeling that we’d been jeffed. The contrast left me with a very clear question. What kind of behaviours do we want to see in our leaders?
Chris Mackey is a Fellow of The Australian Psychological Society and principal psychologist at Chris Mackey and Associates, Geelong.