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Why the bad guys sometimes win!

Why the bad guys sometimes win!

OK, cards on the table. I don’t think the election of Donald Trump was a victory for the straight and true. Yet, despite the most appalling press coverage highlighting the behaviour of someone, who it is claimed; lies, treats disabled people with disdain, seems have a very negative view of immigrants and at least boasts of predatory success with women, he is now president of the USA.

How does this happen? And what does it tell us about leadership?

Most Leaders I have met I have found to be decent people, not morally perfect or inspiring but on the whole doing their best. A few have been extraordinary, showing the potential in all of us to do something positive and valuable. Others have been otherwise. Morally bankrupt, they seem to act only out of self-interest and a drive for power. They can be arrogant, prejudiced, deceitful, bigoted, and often highly manipulative. Depressingly, they sometimes have led successful companies.

This has troubled me, causing me to question sometimes the validity of what we do.

At the core is our belief that building leadership that establishes trust, openness, collaboration and engages diversity is not just the ethical and ‘right’ thing to do but is the most effective way of delivering sustainable results.

We have walked away from assignments with leaders who treat the people who work for and with them with contempt, as a disposable resource, or as something to be manipulated. Yet, I cannot deny that, at least, in the moment some of these executives seem to get results.

How might this happen?

In a recent article in Scientific American Mind, psychologists Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam reviewed the Trump victory. Key to his success, they argue, was his ability through his rallies, tweets and interviews to create sense of identity amongst a group of people -  a sense of ‘us’. To my view this is employing evolutionary psychology, based on the essential tribal nature of our social relationships. Trump created the idea of a tribe of which he was a member and the leader. Then through this identity-building, he could position himself as their champion becauseI am one of you and therefore share and represent your aspirations.” (albeit in his case a very successful one!)

To this tribe of people who felt the world a confusing and chaotic place, his style offered a convincing narrative of: what had gone wrong, why this had happened, and a plausible, simplifying route forward with a clear implication that he had the strength, wisdom, and courage to do deliver it. Although he worked very powerfully to create a sense a negative-other; illegal immigrants, Washington-insiders, Wall Street bankers this was primarily effective because he was seen by his followers as part of them. (Something Clinton probably failed to do)

Is this relevant to business?

Leaders of businesses are selected, not elected you might argue.  But are the processes of recruitment to the most senior leader posts so very different? Yes, sure there are rigorous selection processes, in depth profiling, competency assessment etc. However almost invariably, sometimes implicitly often explicitly, the new leader provides a narrative account of the past, present and desirable future to a stakeholder constituency - who might be the board, the executive, other senior leaders. Psychologically perhaps successful leaders position themselves even before selection as ‘within the team and part of its future’ – I have often seen this reflected in the language they use, preferring to talk about ‘we’ rather than ‘you’. And as such imply “I am with you and I can reduce your anxiety or even fear.”

For in the end, is it not the reduction of fear that drives much decision making in terms of who we choose as leaders?  Fears that goals might not be achieved? Businesses might fail? Teams might get relegated? Reputations might be damaged? Investments lost? Often in the narratives they create, these leaders work to increase the sense of threat and vulnerability thus increasing their standing as the ‘strong protector of the tribe’. The tendency of many corporate leaders upon appointment to report back that ‘things are much worse than I expected, I keep uncovering things’ could often be construed as following a similar strategy.

So far this analysis could equally apply to good and bad leaders in that both need to provide this sense of identity and narrative. Where leaders become bad by which I mean unethical, unprincipled or just plain destructive is when this ability is combined, as it may often be, with the attributes of a narcissistic psychopathwith a measure of Machiavellianism thrown in!*

This so called ‘dark triad’ of personality traits which often seem to overlap in one individual to combine the charm of the attention seeking narcissist, immoral, manipulative, hunger for success of machivallianism with the lack of remorse and empathy of a thrill-seeking psychopath. Psychologists Paul Babiak and Robert D Hare, who wrote the influential book ‘Snakes in Suits’ about ten years ago first identified the high rate of people with these tendencies in leadership and executive positions. A more recent Australian study has found that about one in five corporate executives are psychopaths (which is roughly the same rate as among prisoners). The study of 261 senior professionals in the United States found that 21 per cent had clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits. (The average for the general population is about one in a hundred.)

Arm a leader with the identity and narrative building attributes and a personality strongly shaped by the above traits and you have a very potent leader capable of doing harm.  Worse they may, in the short term, apparently and indeed factually be successful. This will be particularly true in crisis situations where tough and painful decisions need to be taken. Such a leader, backed by the sense of crisis they have fostered and a lack of empathy and willingness to manipulate others, will be very able to take tough and often brutal decisions – the very decisions that key stakeholder groups are looking to see enacted. Moreover, the thrill-seeking aspects of their personality means they will create a sense of excitement and purpose as they seem to back radical ideas and remedies.

It is only over time, as the manipulation of others starts to be widely understood and the overwhelming self-interest of the leader recognised and as talent and ability start to drain away to seek more fertile areas of employment that the shallowness and temporariness of the leader’s contribution be recognised. 

By then they are often already engaged with a new tribe and a new narrative.

* (It is probably important to point out here that we should not jump to the conclusion that Donald Trump is such a person but that his behaviours – as reported in the press and by commentators - represent potential examples of these traits.)

Comments on this Post

Dieter Schulze on 23rd March 2017

So SAD, but TRUE!

Lucy standing on 22nd March 2017

Excellent blog post Steve.

Jackie Switzer on 20th March 2017

Great blog - you've made real sense of the (hopefully) limited shelf life of these dangerous leaders. Thanks.

Steve Carter on 17th March 2017

Thank you Ron :) - and not just African ones !

Steve Carter on 17th March 2017

Hi Vicky, my albeit limited time with Graham Mackay would make me want to agree with you !

Vicky Ferrier on 17th March 2017

My favourite piece you've written ever Steve - love it! So pertinent to my own experiences of leadership in the recent and not so recent past. I often reflect on the leadership and character our dear friend Graham Mackay - ego the size of Kwazulu Natal married with a brilliant intellect, a curiosity for life, and the softest of hearts - I don't think he knew what fear was. Re Trump - I've been doing some work on leadership + head-heart-gut neurology - lots of gut (courage) from Trump - zero heart (compassion) and not a great amount of head (clarity) = dangerous combination in a leader Vx

Micaela Greenwood on 16th March 2017

Many thanks Steve - a very helpful blog and resonates with me on a number of levels.

Ronald Lutaaya on 16th March 2017

Steve, as always this is spot on, you have given me a few words to describe many an African President. Thanks

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