The Evil Side of Leadership
It is fair to say that most people who go for a leadership position do so with only the best intentions in mind. They care about the work or cause of the organization they wish to lead, be that a single department within a large organization, or as CEO of a fortune 500 company. All we have to do is look at the media to see many influential and successful leaders fall from grace, often precipitously, because the trappings of office get ahead of the original reasons they took those jobs.
As foolish as it is to think that there isn’t anyone out there who strives for a position of leadership purely for the power it holds, lets suspend credulity for a moment and look only at the best intentions, I’ll come back to the outliers at the end. When I see someone who is looking to gain a position of leadership of an organization, I first ask myself why. Why are they attempting to get into this new position? For many, it’s because they feel they can improve the situation of the organization or department. They see their personal past experiences as a value, and their attributes as a precursor to success. Attempting to gain employment in a position of leadership takes a certain amount of ego, but this shouldn’t be the overriding reason for the attempt. Most who strive for leadership positions do want to bring their assets to the organization, and improve the operation and bottom line.
With this being the case, why do so many fail? Anthony Weiner, a powerful congressman from NY put a bit too much out there on social media and was forced to resign. Elliot Spitzer had a bit of an issue with the ladies, and this in the end cost him more then the price of a night in a luxury suite. Sure, politicians are easy – they screw up all the time. We can also look at the military and Gen. David Petraeus, or at business at Scott Thompson, formally from Yahoo. In both these cases, these leaders let their ego get in the way of reality. Gen. Petraeus, a great military thinker was forced to resign after a scandal involving another woman. Did the commander of American forces in Afghanistan really think he could keep this dalliance under wraps? He probably did actually, he was the commander of thousands and wielded enormous power, whole divisions moved at his whim. He allowed his ego to cloud his judgment ultimately costing him is career.
What about Scott Thompson? Well he was a very successful man, a former VP of Visa and president of PayPal, but his ego was his downfall here as well. You see, Mr. Thompson wasn’t happy with the resume he had earned, one that most people would be envious of, so he decided to pad his resume with college degrees that were never conferred on him. Did he really think no one would look? Yes, I believe he did. With his impressive work history, he ability to lead and improve the status of companies being well known, I don’t think he ever thought that someone would actually vet is CV for actual degrees! Why would they, he was a success, there would be no reason to look hard into his far past, his recent accomplishments spoke for themselves; Mr. Thomas, as well as Petraeus, Spitzer, and Weiner were all went wrong because their ego’s allowed it to happen. Uncontrolled ego, no matter how well deserved, can lead to personal downfall.
A very closely related reason why leaders fail is they loose sight of their original goals. Again, assuming that you went for a leadership position to improve the workplace, after a period of time some loose their way and stumble onto the path of personal success at the expense of the organization. This path isn’t very clearly marked, like a walk in the forest it doesn’t take much more then a poorly calibrated (moral) compass to veer off course. Merely running a section of the organization isn’t enough; you want the big office next and you will do anything it takes to get there. You let the everyday issues of your department pile up without attention in order to impress your boss with your abilities to quickly and professionally fulfill non-departmental needs. You take the easy way out when there is a tough decision to make, maybe bending policies a bit in order to get the quickest solution, (see my Workplace Policy Enforcement piece for more about that). You push and push for more organizational responsibility, but loose sight of your original goal – to improve the environment that you find yourself in.
Want the good news? This isn’t an unrecoverable problem. If you find yourself off course you can easily correct with a minor correction in bearing. The first issue of ego can lead to scandal nevertheless you can recover. Let’s look back at the people I talked about earlier. Spitzer and Wiener have re-entered the political sphere, and are leading in the polls for the position they seek (shocker, I know). Gen. Petraeus has regained his lore, and is lecturing at colleges being offered large sums of money to teach leadership to others. And Mr. Thompson is once again a CEO, this time for Shoprunner.com, an online retailor. Why did they survive? It’s because at their cores they have the traits of good leadership. The politico’s aside, these two men know what it is to lead, and have proven track records of success, personal issues not withstanding.
Back to the beginning here, what about those who strive for power for powers sake? Of course they exist, and some of them actually have the EQ and cognitive ability to thrive. If you don’t have those attributes, eventually the evil side of leadership will come to light, power over all else, and once it does I hope your resume is up to date.