“She’s hopeless. Consistently late and her content is littered with mistakes. Do something about her!” ACCORD Learning had won a $200m BPO contract to deliver training for Britain’s largest telecom. The stakes were high, the timeframe short and I was managing teams in London, Bangalore and Houston. Nishani was the project manager for the Bangalore team, and reported directly to me. I liked her, and more importantly so did her team in Bangalore.
During several one-on-one talks, I learned she was caring for her parents, both very ill. Moreover, she was studying part-time, had a child with special needs and had recently lost her husband. Each day, she would travel for three hours on buses to get to work. While her performance continued to be a challenge, the team and I found a way to support her during a difficult time and for the project to succeed nonetheless.
The situation was not simple, but very human. I feel we learned more about each other and about teamwork than if I had simply ‘done my duty’ and put her on a performance improvement plan.
Camus’s The Guest explores the conflicted decisions made by Daru, and his treatment of his ‘prisoner’, the Arab. Daru is reluctant to condemn the Arab based on externally imposed expectations, choosing rather to rely on his internal moral philosophy – though not without pause. By treating the Arab with respect and equality, providing him with food, shelter and the dignity of choice, he displays a level of empathy many would find impossible in such a situation.
Empathy is playing an increasingly important role in leadership and is positively correlated with performance (Goleman, 1995; Salovey & Mayer, 1990). As we witness escalating cross cultural collaboration, remote working and technological innovation, empathy and emotional intelligence has become vital in attracting, engaging and retaining talented individuals (Bar-On & Parker, 2000; George, 2000).
Further, it’s not a natural gift, it can be learned (Gentry, 2010). Developing and evolving our ability to see beyond the external is not only vital in business for performance and effectiveness, it may – ambitious as it may sound – assist in reversing the growth of stress, anxiety and isolation in society as a whole.
Bar-On, R., & Parker, J. D. A. (2000). The handbook of emotional intelligence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.
Gentry, W. A. (2010). Managerial derailment: What it is and how leaders can avoid it. In E. Biech (Ed.), ASTD leadership handbook (pp. 311–324). Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press
George, J. M. (2000). Emotions and leadership: The role of emotional intelligence. Human Relations, 53, 1027–1055
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Dell.
Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9, 185–211.
“Blessed be the body of Christ”. One after another, all my schoolmates knelt with hands outstretched before the priest to receive Holy Communion. As a non-Catholic attending Catholic school, it was regularly my experience to sit alone in the church pews while my friends received the most important of the sacraments, the Holy Eucharist.
I once tried to join them, but was quickly instructed to sit down – not only by the priests and nuns, but by my classmates. It was isolating, hurtful and confusing. Unsurprisingly, the experience also made me angry. I became driven to prove I was no less than any other – regardless of faith.
Chariots of Fire’s Abrahams and Liddell were both highly successful in sport, and subsequently as leaders. It could be argued that for Liddell, it was easy to be gracious, generous and statesman-like when he experienced such adulation, support and acceptance. Abrahams, though ostensibly privileged, felt he was shunned, disrespected and resented. Liddell used his faith as motivation to run. His body became a vessel through which to show the world the power of God. Abrahams described his motivation as compulsive. His running became a weapon used in defence of his religion.
Both men were undoubtedly leaders. One became so with support and inclusion – the other through indignance and exclusion.
This clear inequality causes immense suffering and deprives leaders the full expression of their talents. It unnaturally elevates some, and punishes others. For my part, in leadership positions, I have felt driven by a need to be liked, included and accepted by my teams.
I’ve also felt compelled to achieve and be recognised – to gain positions of status and renown as a form of protection from judgment and exposure.
We all crave a sense of purpose, a higher calling and a reason to perform at an elite level. Ideally however, leaders should develop and grow with passion and love for their chosen pursuit, not in a distorted and often unconscious need to justify their place alongside their fellow man.
We love our heroes. In sports, it’s Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. Exploration? Christopher Columbus and Captain James Cook. Business? Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch are revered by millions. No matter how fast, far or rich, how ruthless, mercenary or arrogant – it seems we can’t get enough.
The question is, are we creating heroes or monsters?
In the play Antigone, Sophocles draws Creon as an autocratic dictator, interested only in political order and public obedience to the state. His stubbornness renders him unable to feel the injustice of his decree and ultimately rewards his blindness with personal tragedy.
Could it be that Sophocles is asking us to question the qualities of unwavering focus, resolve and commitment – celebrated by many as being vital attributes of effective leadership (Avolio, 1999)? Qualities which in the case of Creon, may also be categorised as sociopathic or even psychopathic (Babiak & Hare, 2006).
Sub-clinical socio/psychopathic traits such as narcissism, impulsivity, superiority, low-empathy and self-promotion are ironically also those that may assist individuals in rising to the top of the corporate or government ladder (Boddy, 2009). Paradoxically, these traits are often accompanied by the more positively held attributes of charisma, ambition and opportunism (Andrews & Furniss, 2009).
As our leaders become ever more exposed and scrutinised, important questions arise concerning the way in which we encourage, promote and celebrate leadership. Research on the link between psychopathic behaviour and leadership abounds (Pech & Slade, 2007), with many calling for a complete re-think of our societal addiction to hyper-masculine role models (Bennis, 2007).
By rewarding the above behaviours with fame, money and adoration, are we unconsciously guaranteeing for ourselves leaders for whom the line between right and wrong is forever blurred? Are we right to place the blame on the individuals who rise to the top under such a system, or should we accept collective responsibility for creating them in the first instance?
As we move from an industrial-age, hierarchical and militaristic model of leadership towards a creative, collaborative and egalitarian style, is it time for us to re-define our expectations of 21st Century leadership?
Andrews, H., & Furniss, P. (2009). A successful leader or a psychopathic individual? Management Services, 53(4), 22-24.
Avolio, B. (1999). Full leadership development: Building the vital forces in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Babiak, P. & Hare, R.D. (2006). Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths Go To Work, Harper Collins: New York.
Bennis, W. (2007). Challenges of leadership in the modern world. American Psychologist, 62(1), 2-5.
Boddy, C.R. (2009). Corporate Psychopaths in Australian Workplaces: Their Influence on Organisational Outcomes, Curtin University of Technology: Perth, Australia.
Pech, R.J., & Slade, B.W. (2007). Organisational sociopaths: rarely challenged, often promoted. Why? Society and Business Review, 2(3), 254-269.
On September 11, 1941, during his radio ‘fireside chat’, President Roosevelt knowingly lied to his American audience. “I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning”. He did so in order to justify the war against Nazi Germany. On January 26, 1998, with his wife by his side, President Clinton knowingly lied to his American audience. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. He did so in order to protect himself from scandal. Is lying a concomitant symptom of effective leadership? If so, is there such a phenomenon as Plato’s ‘noble’ lie?
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus and Marcus Antonius both engage in dishonesty and deliberate inaccuracy. Their lies however, have diametrically opposed intentions: Brutus to save Rome and uphold a robust republic and Antonius for ambition and to avenge a murder. Lies build upon lies to placate, misdirect or garner favour from ‘the people’, resulting in war, Brutus’s suicide, and victory for Antonius. Thematically then, the tragedy explores the utility and ramifications of deception in leadership. Are we right to demand absolute truth from leaders at all times, or are there circumstances in which deception can be justified?
Absolutists such as Kant (Ellington, 1993) and St Augustine (Brown, 1887) maintain that lying is always wrong, whilst the utilitarian approach prefers to delve deeper into the context and results of the lie. Leaders must absolutely lie for many reasons – to maintain security, to protect the vulnerable, prevent a war (Alterman, 2004). Lying clearly has its place in leadership – however, what of lies steeped in self-interest? How do we gauge the worthiness of a lie?
Churchill described truth as being so precious it must be “attended by a bodyguard of lies”. If leaders must lie, and there are on occasion good reasons for it, discernment is critical. When, about what, to whom, why and with what result are key. This requires objectivity, self-awareness and experience – wisdom, if you will.
To leaders, as with impulsive teenagers, the short term benefits of lying are clear, present and hypnotically appealing; long term ramifications are rarely conceivable. Without wisdom, lies are a Shelby Mustang devoid of its steering wheel.
Alterman, Eric. (2004) When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Viking Penguin: New York.
Browne, H. (1887) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3. Christian Literature Publishing Co: New York
Churchill, W. The Second World War – Vol. 5 – Closing The Ring. Cassell & Co Ltd: London
Ellington, J.W. (1993) Grounding for the metaphysics of morals; with, On a supposed right to lie because of philanthropic concerns. Hackett Pub. Co.: Indianapolis
Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. "Fireside Chat 18: On The Greer Incident (September 11, 1941)". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia.
Deliberately starve a fish and it will take the front position in a shoal (Krauss, 1993). Wild baboons consistently follow an alpha-male to food, only to be left hungry (King et al. 2008), and broad-winged hawks line up behind their elders during migration (Maransky, B.P. and Bildstein, 2001). From an evolutionary perspective, the predominant determinants of leadership were inextricably linked to survival. Leaders arose due to their ability to fight, to feed and to inform.
In 2016 we are, for the most part, beyond such considerations. Yet sex and height still correlate strongly with contemporary leadership. 96% of S&P 500 CEOs are male (Catalyst, 2016), and they are over 800% more likely to be 6’2″ or taller than the general population (Gladwell, 2005). Is it time for us to re-examine our predisposition to electing, promoting and following leaders based on obsolete and perhaps unconscious notions from our evolutionary past?
In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the tragic protagonist Okonkwo responds to his surroundings by becoming a fierce, autocratic and reactionary leader. So embedded and unconscious are his behaviours, that he is unable to prevent himself from shooting at his wife, murdering his young protégé and decapitating a colonial messenger. Ironically, the characteristics of the ‘great man’ he seeks to be – strong, unwavering and ruthless – are also those that result in his inevitable downfall. What Okonkwo lacks is the power of introspection, adaptability and self-awareness. Characteristics he would no doubt dismiss as ‘womanly’.
Recent studies indicate that women outperform men in leadership positions (Catalyst, 2016). Moreover, leaders who perform the worst at emotional intelligence tests are overwhelmingly CEOs (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009). Despite these studies, we remain more comfortable with ‘powerful’ and autocratic leaders.
Although we may empathise, Okonkwo is not alone in embodying a leadership style that’s past its sell-by date. We must demand more from our leaders in today’s increasingly complex and globalised environment. Without a strong awareness of self, adaptability and introspection, we are unwittingly following our evolutionary past – in essence, the traditions of our forefathers. Okonkwo serves as a grave warning of where that might just lead.
Bradberry, T. Greaves, J. (2009) Emotional intelligence 2.0. San Diego, Calif.: TalentSmart.
Catalyst, “Women CEOs of the S&P 500,” http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-ceos-sp-500 (last accessed Feb 2016).
Gladwell, Malcolm. (2005) Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. New York : Little, Brown and Co.
King, A.J., Douglas, C.M.S., Huchard, E., Isaac, N.J.B., and Cowlishaw, G.Curr. (2008) Dominance and affiliation mediate despotism in a social primate. Biol. 1833–1838
Krause, J. (1993) The Relationship between foraging and shoal position in a mixed shoal of roach (Rutilus-Rutilus) and chub (Leuciscus-Cephalus) - a field-study. Oecologia. 356–359
Maransky, B.P. and Bildstein, K.L. (2001) Follow your elders: Age-related differences in the migration behavior of Broad-winged Hawks at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania. Wilson Bull. 350–353
Zenger, J. and Folkman, J. (2012). Are Women Better Leaders than Men? Harvard Business Review. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.