May 18, 2011

- Why Terrific Leaders Can Behave So Badly

Lonely at the Top

But the dark side of narcissism is isolation. Narcissistic leaders lose touch with reality because they can’t relate to anyone. They may be good talkers but they’re bad listeners which, eventually, makes them uninteresting to peers. Narcissists unwittingly but unerringly demean those around them because they see no one but themselves and their needs. So eventually, they’re surrounded only by slaves and sycophants. No one is rewarded for dissent or debate.
Moreover, powerful people appraise information differently. Academic studies have shown that they are more like to be optimistic, to think in purely abstract terms and, most worryingly of all, to be confident. In other words, they feel invincible. And that means they’re prone to enormous risks. (Bill Clinton is the poster child for this syndrome.) Couple this with all the trappings of power - limousines, private jets, hotel suites - and the psychic isolation is made physical too.
The smartest leaders appreciate that power is a problem, not a luxury. Dominique Strauss-Kahn appears not to have been one of these. But beyond suffering from narcissism and the inherent problems of power, DSK seems to have been blind to two fundamental truths every leader needs to think about.

1. You’re not in Paris anymore
The ‘I’ in IMF stands for ‘international’. That means: running a global organization takes you outside your own mores and morals. What plays in France doesn’t necessarily play in New Jersey or Beijing. There is all the difference in the world between a national and an international role.

2. The Personal is the Professional
We all do different things at home than at work. I don’t cook in the office and I try not to give speeches at home. What remains consistent are the values I espouse in both places. Leaders who try to be one thing at work and something else in their private lives end up, at best, distracted and confused. More likely, their hypocrisy becomes evident and their authority wanes. Our private and professional lives may unfold in different spaces but we wear the same faces - and everyone can read them.

Why do you think there are so many examples of leaders behaving badly?


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