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Your leader, the psychopath?

Apr 23, 2017 Leadership, Sunday Nation

I have advised many, many CEOs in my time, but I’ve never envied them.

They get a pile of money, certainly. But, as I saw Lucy Kellaway pointing out in the Financial Times the other day, CEOs are also often lonely and paranoid; the time they spend with their families is so little that they become like strangers to them; their jobs carry intolerable stress; they spend crazy amounts of time on aeroplanes flying to unnecessary meetings; and they are haunted by the very real prospect of humiliating failure.

It’s no wonder so many of them suffer from burnout and derangement. Ms Kellaway suggests that the job spec is at fault. We should be realistic about the nature of the job, and not turn the role into that of a demigod.

Her fellow FT columnist Stefan Stern went further. He asked: does your CEO display any of the following behaviour patterns?

Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgment and contempt for advice or criticism? Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness? A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory? Loss of contact with reality, often associated with progressive isolation? A disproportionate concern with image and presentation?

Hmm. I don’t know about you, but that does describe quite a good chunk of chief executives I’ve come across. These behaviour patterns are being referred to as “hubris syndrome” – an acquired personality change in people who ascend to positions of great power.

Let’s go even further. A recent study by Nathan Brooks, a forensic psychologist, found that about one in five corporate executives are psychopaths – roughly the same rate as among prisoners. The study of senior professionals in the United States found that 21 per cent had clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits. The rate of
psychopathy in the general population is about one in a hundred.

What’s going on here? Evidently, the wrong people are being attracted to the promise of lucre and power that senior executive positions offer. And too many of the wrong people are not getting screened out in the recruitment process. We tend to be in awe of the overconfident braggarts, the smooth-talking BS artists, the shallow intellects who can generate simple sound bites for every occasion. We willingly make these people our leaders.

Go beyond corporate leadership to political, and things get even worse. Look at what the folks of the United States of America just did. The current occupant of the White House seems to be overdosing on all the symptoms of hubris syndrome decribed above.

It’s a hot mess, leadership. We have made it into a bad job; and we have allowed it to be done by deplorables.

What is to be done? I think we have to rethink what exactly we want from an executive leader. We want good coordination skills, the ability to coach and get the best out of others, prudent financial decision-making and good ambassadorship, certainly; but do we also want showmanship and arrogance? That way megalomania lies…

Don’t make the job of leader, private or public, bigger than it needs to be. Understand that great achievement more often comes from great teams, not just great individuals. Understand also that large organizations are extremely difficult things to run, and no one person can be expected to carry the load alone. A great leader is actually a key part of a great machine. Build the machine, not the cult of the person.

Also, tone down the aura and the benefits. Stop worshipping leaders as though they are divine creatures. Stop giving them insane perks and benefits. Stop surrounding them with braying acolytes. Stop making the payoffs so attractive that every conman wants the job.

Finally, applaud, as I do, the real leaders in our midst. Not the headline-seekers and rabble-rousers; not the demagogues and the snake-oil peddlers. Look instead for those who care about the collective more than they care about themselves; those who work with real dedication rather than play golf at every opportunity and schmooze at every cocktail party; those who nurture other leaders rather than create an atmosphere of political paranoia; those who deliver real, sustainable results rather than manipulated froth.

Now those leaders really do matter. Look for them and give them a suitable job to do, and maybe we can still give this thing called leadership a proper go and make it a bigger deal.

(Sunday Nation, 23 April 2017)

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