The Sociopathic Condition We Still Call Leadership

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Several years ago, Manfred Kets de Vries, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD, a psychoanalyst by profession and a scholar I greatly admired, suggested that a majority of leaders he had encountered exhibit some kind of personality disorder. He argued in several books and academic articles, that most CEOs are obsessive, disregard the feelings of others, and tend towards narcissism.

In my own experience his analysis hit the nail on the head. Accepted sociopathic symptoms including manipulative and deceptive behaviour, a lack of remorse, a determination to pass the buck, and undisguised arrogance, combined with high levels of superficial charm, were common qualities in those with whom I had encountered as an adviser and consultant. Not everyone mind you. But certainly most. This, incidentally, was in distinct contrast to those who approached me for mentoring who were mostly humble, honest, and excruciatingly self-aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.

But then Kets de Vries, a highly respected academic and consultant, toned-down his views, presumably so as not to offend that constituency upon whom he relied for his consulting work. He began to reframe his hypothesis, claiming that sociopathic personalities were not necessarily bad. Indeed, that constructive narcissism, a blend of self-love and self-belief, is essential in order to prosper in corporate life.

He did not question at what point constructive narcissism might become destructive, and how organisations and their shareholders actually benefit from such pathological conduct in executive ranks. He failed to contextualise such behaviours, or point to differences we might expect from men and women in high pressure positions. He avoided exploring why antisocial personalities are still seen as successful – outside of a few highly spurious and ultimately superficial factors. And he abstained from suggesting that other benefits could accrue from a system in which sociopathic leadership qualities were rejected out of hand.

In effect his modified position cleverly maintains the status quo of a system in crisis and in dire need of business and cultural evolution together with, we must assume, a bountiful supply of clients eager to access his services to find plausible justifications for their “unfortunate but necessary” behaviour.

For at least the past decade there has been mounting evidence to indicate organisations that tolerate sociopaths in positions of power, are those most likely to be hit by successive scandals and internal crises of one kind or another, in an environment demanding honesty, openness, empathy, virtuous practices, and at least a vestige of humility. Not to have such traits these days increases the risk that an organisation will fail to fulfil its promise.

Failure can be seen from a variety of perspectives. Most fundamentally these are:

  • an organisation’s operational performance based upon stakeholder expectations
  • an organisation’s perceived standing and integrity in the community – resulting from explicit interpretations of its implicit “license to operate”
  • an organisation’s ability to attract and keep staff purposefully engaged.

Until the middle 20th century, organisational performance had mostly focused on efficiency and productivity. It was very internally focused. But then, as radically new information and communications technologies took hold, and globalism made mass markets accessible, the emphasis shifted. Today almost every aspect of organisational performance is driven by external factors while perceptions, however inaccurate or unfair, are as important to the enduring nature of the business as the financial accounts.

Contemporary stakeholders are continuously demanding new and higher standards from business corporations. Higher quality, lower cost, easier access, technological currency, human interaction, ethical purity, and brand resonance, are just a few of the potentially conflicting dilemmas faced by corporations customarily concerned with profitability and market share. Against that context, the slightest whiff of unethical or delinquent behaviour from the leadership casts a pall of mistrust among staff who feel unable or unwilling to corroborate the official story, particularly where this conflicts with their own experiences.

Professor Gary Hamel at the London Business School estimates that every day over $1 billion is spent on learning and development in organisations across the world – almost twice as much as the world spends on Apple products. Roughly $100 million of that is invested in developing leaders. Yet the trend concerning employee engagement remains doggedly poor. Around 13-17 per cent overall. Why is this so?

Where is the return on that investment in leadership when most staff feel so disengaged and have no commitment to the enterprise? What are they to do when the most highly-paid executives in the organisation have such grossly inflated views of their own self-worth and capabilities? What recourse do they have when they constantly come up against disdain, deceit, manipulation, ruthless tough-mindedness, and a denial of responsibility?

The myth of the strong, charismatic alpha-male CEO, still pervades the corporate world and remains the most sought-after profile by executive search firms. The merits of ruthlessness, dispassionate manipulation, hubris and psychopathic charm are still admired, while their negative consequences are routinely discounted.

We need only examine statements from numerous whistle-blowers to acknowledge the truth of this statement. Over the past 25 years, all around the world, from the collapse of Enron, the lies perpetuated by large tobacco and pharmaceutical companies, the failure of the energy companies to move from fossil fuels to renewables, and trading scandals in banks that eventually led to upheavals in senior executive ranks, significant financial loss, and incalculable reputational damage, the scene has been one of shameful predictability.

Yet some of the largest, most flourishing companies, now seem eager to copy a range of smaller, start-up enterprises that seem to be attracting the most gracious, smart, humble, cooperative, and emotionally-intelligent individuals at their helm. Many of these are young. And many of them are women.

The leaders we need are not those prone to barking rules and pronouncements that give the impression of strength and certainty, but unlikely leaders. Those who shape cultures and defy expectations by living their lives honestly and setting ethical standards in every decision made and action taken.

As global societal conditions morph, various unsavoury schemes underpinning predatory capitalism become more visible (and less acceptable) to greater numbers of people, and society’s values shift from an emphasis on industrial growth and competition to a steady-state economy and universal collaboration, the image of the macho sociopathic CEO will fade and eventually become extinct. We can only wait and welcome such a passing given the damage they have wreaked.

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