The problem with idolization

I had read some of the Arthur Halley’s novels while I was at home. His novels, while applauded for reflecting his extensive research in the working of particular industries in whose context he bases his novel, are often criticized in literary circles. And yeah – probably you can see that many a things there created for the sake of creating suspense and drama. Too many events packed in a small time frame make the situation terribly dramatic. But then probably that’s why they are a respite for an MBA student bored with lengthy, tasteless case studies :), while giving equally well and probably better insights into the particular industry than the drab case studies. But I digress. What he certainly has to be praised for is that despite dramatization of situation and everything else, he crafts his characters very well. Even if the sheer number of sensitive events in the plot is unrealistic, the characters are not so. They are very real, and that shows either good understanding or good research into individual or sociological psyche on the part of the author.

But I digress too much into specifics of Arthur Halley. What I’ll pick up here is one situation from his novel “Wheel”, which sets the right ground for the topic I am writing about. He describes one of the programmes run by the big auto companies to bring the “inner city residents” (blacks) into the auto-industry. The programme is very aggressive and they tried real hard to help these people. Many of them, as a result of sheer deprivation throughout their lives, did not know how to manage their lives with any money they earn. They had never seen money in their lives. There is one such black person, who gets into working in one of these auto companies – on the shop floor of course. He has had police charges against him in past, is quite dazzled by all the programmes that got him in and is hardly aware of what and how is everything happening. But he is there and working. In the course of time he sort of adjusts and decides that this is a place to work and earn something peacefully. He had no fancy for police and was content to stay away from a life leading to charge or prison again. even though he saw nothing more coming from the job – no specific delight, no social life that he’d like to welcome. Despite this apparent non-chalantness, through a sequence of events he comes to appreciate his supervisor. He thinks of the supervisor as some one honestly dedicated to his work and without realizing that he has started doing it, he almost idolizes him. Meanwhile, several rackets operating on the shop floor of auto companies (which is/was apparently a way of life there) approach him for his active involvement in their activities once they learn of his background in criminal activities. He refuses to provide his involvement, initially solely to keep away from falling into that kind of life again. But slowly this idolization of supervisor also creeps in as a reason and becomes a more important one. And once he confidently asks a person approaching him as to how is it at all possible to run the rackets with the supervisor around. This person demonstrates to him by quietly bribing the supervisor (leaving an envelope for him). At this his resistance breaks down, disillusionment creeps in about the “better” ways of living and he gets involved in the proposal brought to him. After that his life spirals only downwards and he is on a path from where he can not retract. His story ends with his getting involved in a murder, escaping the police but being killed by a mafia group supporting in the competing racket whose owner was killed.

His tragic story beautifully depicts the problem with idolization of anything. Idolization that leads to motivation for doing (or not doing) something, idolization that motivates (resists) an action. It very conveniently puts the responsibility for motivation on some other person/situation. The internal locus of motivation either never existed in such situations or it dilutes/weakens with time. And while the result can be wonderful if everything is well. Even the not-so-enlightened, not-so-capable could possibly drive motivation and inspiration and do wonders. This is what happens under the leadership of charismatic leaders I suppose. But one small thing going wrong, from the point of view of the person getting inspired, can lead to disaster for this person, as it happened in the case described above. Especially when the “motivator” never intended to motivate and is hardly careful about his/her behaviour, the vulnerability is particularly high. Even when this aspect is known to the inspiring person, and he or she is prepared to take the responsibility, there are just so many ways in which things can go wrong. If there are a large number of followers, this charismatic leader can hardly keep track of how his/her leadership is being interpreted by each individual and how something seeming harmless can actually disillusion one or many of them and thrust them in a vicious circle of downfall. The situation is quite complicated. It is like the question of whether humans made God or God made humans. When this idolization happens, the followers almost take a free reign in assigning characteristic to the leader, the way they see fit. Very likely the leader never wanted those characteristics to be assigned (God has little control over what characteristic we want to assing to him, right? :D). Those characteristics migh even be against the principals of the leader, but the follower, looking upto the leader, is not capable of understanding. And then one day when it turns out that the leader is not an advocate of those characterisitics, the cycle of disillusionment sets in.

It creates a bad dilemma for leaders. On the one hand the human race is such, that charismatic leaders are required for certain tasks to be completed. (More on this in another post) But there are serious risks that a charismatic leadership style poses. One of which was the topic of this post. The problem associated with idolization. Where is the middle ground?

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About Jaya

Jaya Jha is an entrepreneur, a techie, a writer and a poet. She was born and brought up in various towns of Bihar and Jharkhand. A graduate of IIT Kanpur and IIM Lucknow, she realized early on that the corporate world was not her cup of tea. In 2008, she started, one of the first print-on-demand publishing platform in India. She currently lives in Bangalore and divides her time between writing and working on her company's latest product InstaScribe ( with a vision to make it the best e-book creation tool. Blog: Twitter: @jayajha Facebook:

5 thoughts on “The problem with idolization

  1. hey,

    though i have not read any of the works of arthur hailey, but as far idolization is concerned i believe it is human’s one of the basic instincts.when we r a kid we idolize our elder cousins or neighbours, in teen age we mostly idolize the music or sports icons. when we are in our career paths we idolize somebody in that point is idolization is a natural thing.

    well the problem with idolization is we expect our idols to be picture perfect, but there is nothing in live which is perfect. we got to give our idols the room to compensate or overcome their mistakes, afterall they are also humans.

    once i was debating with a friend about gandhi’s contribution in india’s freedom struggle. i was of the opinion that if gandhi wished we would have a single nation today with lot of friend brought out a very nice point,that this is the problem when we idolize somebody we expect him to be picture perfect which is practically impossible.we should give him room and accomodate his mistakes otherwise we end up hurting nobody but ourself.

  2. My two pence:

    Some people though have exactly the opposite problem. There is no idol for them. They do not believe, in anyone or anything.

    Are they worse off? Is the guy on the shopfloor in any way less responsible for his deeds? Allow me this hypothesis, but he would have done the same thing – idol or no idol.


  3. Hi Jaya
    M busy infact very busy,But dont wish to miss your WRITING …Reason is i m idolising U only!…Sorry guys!

    Take care


  4. If Abraham Maslow is right, each one seeks out different objects in the world that satisfies one’s need at that stage in life. Considering the background of the guy (at shopfloor), he was just starting to transform to a different world-view. The supervisor filled in a position in his mind at that juncture.

    At another level: if we create a graph of people as nodes and lines (of influence) connecting the nodes, a society (with a few “charismatic” leaders controlling most others) would look like a scale-free network ( What are the generative processes that gave rise to such a structure?

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