Sep 052009

“I didn’t take this position for the money,” he said looking at me somewhat smugly and for a very brief moment perhaps too honestly. “I did it for the power.”

I remember the conversation well. It was about 15 years ago. As a consultant then, I was, from time to time, in the offices of business leaders who I was lucky enough to do business with. Obviously this was a case of a young manager impressing me with his new-found power. I could see the glint in his eye as he relished the chance to exercise power. As I sat there, I began to wonder. Has he been telling everyone his motives behind the advancement? Probably not.

I grew up in a family business where I saw at a very young age there was little glory in power. While my father was in charge of the business, I saw my father very painfully sacrificing his economic and personal well-being in difficult times so that employees could get paid and customers served. As we have recently observed, some corporate leaders frequently have too much power and too little social responsibility.

As he sat there, I quickly realized that this new leader’s love of power could be a problem.

Power is seductive, acting as an aphrodisiac on some who aggressively seek it, wilting away their restraints upon their possession of it. Mad in pursuit and in possession so, writes Shakespeare. Power has a lesser, but still problematic effect on many who believe they will find reward and fulfillment in a promotion. Even many younger IT workers, conditioned by a culture predisposed to visions of heroic leadership, seem predisposed to seek promotion perhaps a little too hastily.

Leaders who selfishly crave power must hide the craving, and this, I believe sets up a web of subtle deceit that a few leaders get quite good at managing early on in life. They begin to develop two worlds, an inner life of ambition and needing to be on top and an outer life of skillful language and behavior to hide the inner life. They develop the needed personal and social skills to keep these two worlds from thrashing about. These leaders are often hard to know. By the time they become leaders, their hiding themselves from others is a highly skilled and well-practiced art. These leaders tend to use language vary carefully and in some cases hardly at all, preferring to work through others. Their intentions remain hidden at all times.

I believe some of these leaders have a strong personal desire to promote upwards but to do so for personal rather than social reasons. The tell-tale sign of these leaders can be found by looking at this leader’s direct reports. Typically these toxic leaders gather around them codependents — good subservient followers who do not challenge the leader. These narcissistic leaders need these kinds of followers just as much as they need to expunge threats to their world. They need these threats to justify the desire for power.

In my perhaps naïve experience, I have seen only a few leaders fall into this deeply toxic category. For most, the desire to utilize personal talents across a broader organization is a natural and beneficial one. But it needs to be continually tempered. One trait, if developed early, that can help I call personal simplicity.

To illustrate what I mean about this, consider the recent past. Those companies who helped create the great recession of 2008-2009, also created a lack of transparency. What these companies were reporting to shareholders on the outside was very different than what was going on inside. Their inner desire to accumulate wealth without adequate regard for risk could no longer be kept hidden because the insufficiently imagined risks were becoming real. The inner and outer worlds collided in a cataclysm. At the top of these organizations, we will likely find narcissistic leaders who were incapable of putting the organization’s interests ahead of their own. (See Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair Article on AIG, The Man Who Crashed the World). Their lack of empathy means they also can’t fully appreciate the social responsibility for their actions that create pain in innocents.

Many are calling for reforms that can somehow increase transparency. The Sarbanes-Oxley obsession of 2002 and beyond put the word transparency on the social mind map. What we have now is Transparency II, coming to a theater near you.

One of the sources of the problem, I believe is a lack of “personal transparency” or personal simplicity. People with this simplicity seem to not have the energy or the learned skill to keep their inside world and their outside world complete distinct and quite different. Their insides are their outsides. Sometimes we know these people as those who wear their emotions on their sleeves. Quite the opposite of the toxic narcissistic leader, we know what these people are thinking.

It is appropriate to ask at this point why the heck I have prattled on about this for so long.

Because organizations cannot survive long without personal simplicity. As Jim Collins said so eloquently in his book Good to Great, information technology accelerates the great firm. But information technology can also accelerate the firm driven by a toxic leader — straight into a brick wall. Expressed diversity of thought and structured conflict to find resolution to worlds in collision within organizations is critical. Despite the investments in IT, we don’t seem to have created the fully transparent organization. One could argue that ultimate corporate adaptability could be found in ultimate transparency. Transparency prevents the personal and corporate inner worlds from getting disconnected from the external realities.

Also, I contend IT worker productivity and hence IT effectiveness overall, is greatly affected by the quality of their leaders and by the corporate culture and behaviors. Management environments that consistently maintain inner and outer worlds out of sync with each other are not ones that can consistently tap into the creative minds of its IT workers. Smart workers see the gap which demotivates them. The gap doesn’t have to be large to be detrimental. Some leaders, while not ostensibly toxic, are just barely toxic enough to sufficiently demotivate. Sustainable and great knowledge work requires corporate and personal transparency. This requires leaders that are authentic and perceived as such by all.

A demoralized worker in a firm plagued by recent downsizing expressed it glumly, “I have found the two people in this company I can trust.” How productive are these kinds of workers?

The challenge for all IT leaders is simple. Is your inside like your outside? Do you have personal simplicity? Are you authentic? Do you have followers who can challenge you?

Personal simplicity has a power and an attraction all its own.


  One Response to “Toxic Leaders and Personal Simplicity”

  1. […] cut through the crap and simplify things, so that we can build them back up again. the folks at Cutter Consortium are clearly skilled at all […]

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