Of psychopathic leaders and failing organisations – Part 6

WELCOME to the last in the series of; “Of psychopathic leaders and failing organisations.” In this series we are interrogating what really goes on in the souls of psychopathic leaders with a view to understanding some characteristics in leadership which affect their performance in leading successful organisations.

People Management Issues Robert Mandeya

What has been coming out of the series are certain personal traits or human behaviours which manifest repeatedly or excessively in one’s leadership practices to the extent of being construed obsessive or psychopathic. Most specifically, the current macroeconomic challenges facing Zimbabwe might have given rise to certain characteristics in leaders as they grapple to contain or survive the vagaries of this economy. Most have been pushed to the edge and could be exhibiting certain tendencies which could be perceived as irrational in a bid to survive. For instance, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor John Mangudya’s move to introduce bond notes has been taken differently across sectors. Certainly each one of us has his or her own take on this contentious issue.

In the first installment in this series, we observed that psychopaths often share the same goals as many others: money, power, material goods and influence. The difference is that, a psychopath views any means, (even harmful, cruel or illegal actions), as justified if it achieves the desired end. In other words, there is a tendency of being inconsiderate or self conceited. Some of the undesirable traits explored in the series included lack of empathy, egotism, superficial charm, selfishness, and lack of remorse.

From all these traits, we realised that psychopaths are usually very charming and charismatic, but show little remorse when their actions harm others. Again, we noticed that a psychopath often blames others for the things he does, or the negative outcomes of his behaviour. It came out that among higher-scoring psychopaths; there was even a joy in manipulating others — actions for which a typical person would feel remorse or guilt.

For those who have been following the series you will remember I indicated that these examples are placed in the setting of a new leader who assumed control of an organisation with the intent of changing its direction. However, certain questions arose from the discussion; whether it is realistic to think that “good leadership techniques” can be practiced consistently in extremely difficult situations? Also, is it probable that the distinction between great or tough or lousy or even psychopathic leadership reside solely in the “eye of the beholder?”

Admittedly, these are not easy distinctions to make. Some leaders may be troubled that some of the examples in the series describe actions they have taken in the past. If you notice the series was not diagnostic or prescriptive but simply laid bare facts of human endeavour where you are invited to make your own assessment of this fictitious leader. Whether each case as presented in the stories, reflects legitimate leadership behaviours during trying times or psychopathic actions, it is all up to your deductive reasoning.

In this last case scenario, we look at one more characteristic; unethical behaviour. Research from the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, have revealed that people with wealth and power are more likely to behave unethically than people without wealth and power. The research further discovered that people with wealth were more likely than poorer participants to: break the law while driving, exhibit unethical decision-making, take valued goods from others, lie during a negotiation, cheat to increase their chances of winning and endorse unethical behaviour at work. An example of these findings can be picked from the following story:

As revenue began to decline, this leader could not accept that the performance of the organisation was deteriorating. (The decline was blamed on the incompetent talent hired by the previous CEO). The finance director, was instructed to modify the way revenue was recorded so that declines were hidden. (Revenue was also credited in such a way that the CEO’s initiatives were seen to be successful while the on-going efforts of the organisation were seen as deteriorating.)

Organisation metrics about performance were not shared with staff; the only thing discussed was each person’s individual performance metrics.

Reimbursements of expenses for his “favoured” direct subordinates were approved even though they were not consistent with company policies or financial guidelines. Similar requests for reimbursements for those in the “other camp” were denied. When challenged on these actions, the CEO claimed he had the right to put together his “own team”.

Promotions and pay increases were promised to people throughout the organisation to curry information, favour and support. Unless a staff member was one of his “chosen few”, however, those promises are never realised. Soon the informal organisation picked up on this behaviour and passed the communication that “he will promise you anything, but deliver on nothing.”

Now here are some questions to ponder; did this leader demonstrate the characteristics of a psychopathic leader or were these the actions of a tough-minded leader doing what the situation required? How can one tell if a leader is taking the hard actions necessary to correct a situation he or she has inherited or if the behaviour is psychopathic? Does the true distinction between tough and psychopathic behaviour occur when ego, meanness, arrogance and a need to win at all costs underlie leadership actions? Is the desire to elevate oneself and punish enemies the point where a leader crosses the line? Does the behaviour even matter if the results on customers, employees and the organisation are the same?

Like always, please feel free to proffer any suggestions as the examples in the series are meant to stimulate debate and new thinking in leadership.

Mandeya is a senior executive training consultant and communication in management advisor, a personal coach in leadership and professional development with the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. — mandeyarobert@yahoo.com, mandeyarobert@gmail.com. The views contained herein are personal.