Trust and transparency are two indispensable elements of authentic leaders. If trust is broken for any reason, or transparency is not forthcoming, we feel betrayed.
Betrayal is treacherous in that it actively breeds mistrust – violating our need for integrity, eroding confidence in those who seek to persuade us of a particular course, and casting a pall over their real intentions.
Betrayal by those we respect is unbearable and impossible to disguise. What can be worse than a friend’s unfaithfulness? Or so much harder to forgive? It invokes a range of conflicting, intensely-felt, consequences that tear us apart – forcing us to recalibrate expectations and realign our allegiances and convictions. Once our sense of loyalty has been breached in this manner it can seldom be repaired.
In an era of such volatility and change, this betrayal of trust has become one of the greatest perils we face from incumbent leaders – especially those who let egotistical self-importance shape their aspirations and affairs. While we might put up with pride, turn a blind eye to offensive conduct, and deplore dishonesty, those who betray our trust are forever held in contempt.
How is it then that so many of those in public life, particularly politicians and celebrity CEOs, are beguiled by circumstances to the extent that lies, deceit and betrayal become acceptable options? We must examine the context, scrutinising the salience of explicit factors, to find possible answers to this paradox.
Part of the problem has to do with management education and the false premises on which undiscerning or obsolete theories of leadership are borne from one era to the next without critical modification. Charismatic and contingency theories of leadership fall into this category. Seemingly pertinent in the era immediately following World War II they are now little more than dusty relics in a globalised world where empathy, speed, imagination, resilience and cooperation matter far more than individual charm or overt displays of power.
Another legitimate cause is the result of the popular media’s fixation on creating the boardroom equivalent of Superman. These ‘men of steel’ possess a wealth of sangfroid, copious amounts of faith in their infallibility, and a vitality they direct into motivating those around them – bludgeoning recalcitrants into submission when necessary and driving change according to their own rules and agendas. Love them or hate them their authority is based almost entirely upon misapplied charismatic force.
Often ephemeral, one-dimensional, open to exploitation through flattery and of being manipulated to camouflage important truths, charismatic leadership harbours three other distinct risks that are often overlooked: (i) the cult of ego and self-importance; (ii) an intolerance of alternative values and views; and (iii) the cultivation of a cadre of dependents who, fearful of straying too far from any authorised narrative, are reluctant to accept accountability for their actions.
All of these nourish conditions in which blame and betrayal can take root. But in an era where humanity is facing so many crises, is this what we really want from our leaders? If not why do we condone it instead of being outraged?
Nearly 3,000 years ago the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu recognised these same drawbacks when he declared: A leader is best when people barely know that he exists; not so good when people obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did this ourselves’….
The Cult of Self-Importance
There are significant differences between those who bring a deep intentionality to their labours and those that take themselves more seriously. The former inspire through their lightness of touch – their good humour, their passion and their humility. They remain true to the cause they share with countless others – garnering respect by keeping promises without compromising principles.
The extent to which the latter are able to forge success depends on the attention they manage to attract from their status, or exercise of authority, the resonance their decisions have with partisan factions in their support base, and the nature of any prize to which they believe they are entitled. But success achieved purely through the idolisation of a ‘leader’ is rarely viable in the longer term.
Popular or iconic ‘leaders’ run the risk of becoming infatuated by their own narcissism. They believe the myth that success derives from their personal brilliance, rather than from the people, products and systems over which they have the good fortune to preside. Driven by the need to constantly nourish their insatiable egos they focus on short-term gratification, neglecting to create an institution that can endure and thrive after their departure – Lao Tzu’s major test of leadership.
Unwittingly this can also have a debilitating, albeit indirect, impact on others. Those who cast themselves as needy subordinates, or who kowtow too easily to those in authority, will gradually turn the most empathic and humble of leaders into pompous, self-opinionated sociopaths. The courts of Medieval Europe understood this only too well, which is why kings had jesters whose primary role was to poke fun at the follies and indiscretions of majesty. Establishing protocols that distance leaders from reality is as foolhardy today as it was back then.
Intolerance of Alternative Views
The energetics displayed by the majority of charismatic leaders, especially their ability to catalyse support purely through the passionate advocacy of a cherished objective, too often translates into an intolerance concerning other options.
There are advantages to such an approach of course. Everyone understands what is expected of them and how they are required to perform. Little time is wasted on debating alternative ways of doing things. To be fair this approach can often work well in stable, unchanging environments. But in a dynamically changing world, where the past is not a reliable guide to future success, an inability to challenge the status quo and to encourage a diversity of thinking can be folly.
In every situation where charisma may once have been used to some advantage, and in spite of successful past track records, courageous leaders will recognise their fallibility and seek to transcend ego – exercising empathy and an inclination to listen to and adopt alternative opinions, even when these do not accord with their own views. The wise leader understands that voicing a dissenting opinion is not a sign of infidelity but rather of loyalty.
Even if charismatic leaders do not use force or fear to achieve their goals, the sheer dynamism of their personalities, coupled with their ability to convey any personal preferences with absolute conviction, may intimidate those with whom they must work.
If the leader also fails to delegate appropriately, they will keep subordinates in a state of permanent dependency – unable to make decisions that would counter the leader’s instructions or authority.
This can lead to numerous organisational and morale problems. For example:
- Sign-off from the leader on even the most routine of decisions invariably puts a brake on the organisation’s learning metabolism.
- Fearful of misinterpreting what the leader is presumed to want can lead to self-censorship and second-guessing. This is made far worse when the leader’s wishes are ambiguous or directions are so unclear as to warrant a Ph.D. in telepathy.
- Experimentation and innovation wanes, engulfed by the pervasive fear of failure, reprimand and even dismissal. This is particularly serious because it undermines the ability to adapt to changing circumstances – a critical capability if an organisation is to flourish and endure in today’s volatile market conditions.
- It stunts personal growth and development since making mistakes is an essential part of learning. It also allows staff to remain unaccountable for the ethical consequences of their actions as they can always plead they were simply following orders.
- Internal succession planning may become corrupted because of the way potential successors have been recruited, developed and promoted.
Over the decades charismatic leadership has remained a staunch friend. In war and in peacetime it felt desirable. It seemed as though we were in safe and capable hands. By creating illustrious role models we came to trust and to admire charismatic leaders implicitly. The theory of charismatic leadership spawned an entire industry in executive search – ironically also the scene of its most spectacular failures.
Societal norms permit charismatic leadership to prevail as a default mechanism. We are unfailingly beguiled by charisma, still seduced by the notion that exalted individuals can perform miracles. But this is a deception. It always was. We have been betrayed by a familiar friend. We need to find forgiveness in our hearts and move on. For while charisma has a charm and appeal in healthy individuals its application to leadership is nothing but a cruel sham.
In an era of global complexity and massive technological change, charismatic leadership is both a risk and unwarranted. We can do without the egocentric posturings of those who feel entitled to lead. Instead we must try to liberate a new tradition of collaboration where leadership simply becomes an emergent property of the conditions established by society for feasible, desirable and equitable change.