Books, articles, seminars and speeches abound espousing the virtues of great leaders, effusive in their description of men and women who are selfless, humble, empathetic, compassionate, emotionally intelligent and altruistic. Hordes of consultants, university professors, researchers and coaches make their living espousing the need for choosing these kinds of leaders.
The truth of the matter is that we are hypocrites, and we are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders and workplaces. We tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader. We hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest, and whose long-term impact has and can damage and even destroy organizations (and even countries). In my two decades as an executive coach, I have encountered more of the leaders described in this paragraph than those described in the first paragraph. Many people easily forgive these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic entertainment value to the organization.
A Leadership Crisis
Yet even today, despite the collective wisdom of centuries on this topic, confidence in our leaders is low and continues to decline. Those are among the key findings of a nation-wide poll, in 2012, the National Leadership Index(NLI), released by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and Merriman River Group. The survey is the seventh annual measurement of public attitudes toward 13 different sectors of American life, ranging from business and non-profits to politics and religion. In only two sectors measured in the year’s report—military and medical—did the leaders receive above-average confidence scores. Ratings for the remaining eleven sectors fell into the below-average range or remained in the below-average range. Wall Street and Congress stood out as the sectors in which Americans have the least confidence—indeed, the confidence rating for these two was barely above "none at all."
And the failure rate for our leaders is getting worse, not better. The Conference Board reported that CEO tenure has declined since 2000. Consulting firm Booz also reported higher CEO turnover rates among the 250 largest companies. The Center for Creative Leadership reports research that shows 50% of leaders and managers are “estimated to be ineffective, incompetent or a mishire.” A survey by 14,000 HR professionals found only 26% reported the quality of leadership in their company as excellent or very good.
In the past two decades, 30% of Fortune 500 chief executives have lasted less than three years. Top executive failure rates as high as 75% and rarely less than 30%. Chief executives now are lasting 7.6 years on a global average down from 9.5 years in 1995. According to the Center for Creative Leadership 38% new chief executives fail in their first 18 months on the job. And Donald Palmer at the University of California reported of the Fortune 100 firms in l999, 40% of them had engaged in misconduct.
It appears the major reasons for failure has nothing to do with competence, or knowledge, or experience. Sydney Finkelstein, author of Why Smart Executives Fail, and David Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo, authors of Why CEOs Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb to the Top and How To Manage Them present cogent reasons why chief executives fail, most of which have to do with hubris, ego and a lack of emotional intelligence.
The Toxic Organization
In my book, Eye of Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, I describe in detail the characteristics of toxic workplaces, and the part that dysfunctional leaders play in creating them.Toxic workplaces can be characterized as follows:
There has been a decline in civility in the workplace, including the growth of bullying. Christine Porath, Georgetown University business professor wrote a piece in The New York Times about the decline of civility in the workplace: “A quarter of those I surveyed in l998 reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once week…That figure rose to nearly half in 20005 , then to just over half in 2011.” In my article in Psychology Today, “The Rise of Incivility and Bullying in America,” “Repeated public opinion polls have voiced the concern of Americans over the erosion of civility in government, business, media and social media. The most recent poll by Weber Shandwick, reported that 65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem that has worsened during the financial crisis and recession. What’s even more distressing is that nearly 50% of those surveyed said they were withdrawing from the basic tenants of democracy—government and politics—because of incivility and bullying.”
Research conducted in the past decade has shown that employee engagement has declined significantly in most industries, with some research citing as few as 29% of employees being actively engaged in their jobs.
There’s a clear symbiotic relationship between toxic workplaces and the toxic leaders who inhabit them.
Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg has recently published a study on the growth and impact of toxic leadership on organizations. He contends that “there is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organizations across the world.” Veldsman says that anecdotal and research evidence shows that one out of every five leaders is toxic, and he argues according to his research, that is closer to three out of every ten leaders. Veldsman describes toxic leadership as “ongoing, deliberate intentional actions by a leader to undermine the sense of dignity, self-worth and efficacy of an individual. This results in exploitative, destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences.” He goes on to say that a toxic organization is one that “erodes, disable and destroys the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well being of the people who work in it in permanent and deliberate way.
INSEAD business school Professors Gianpiero Petriglieri and Jennifer Petriglieri, authors of “Can Business Schools Humanize Leadership?” have coined the term “leadership industrial complex,” which they say promotes a view of leadership that is depersonalized and sanitized: “Over one decade of corporate scandals, financial meltdowns and growing inequality has consolidated a disconnect with business and political leaders, as it is in the protests in the streets and squares around the globe.” Leaders now are no longer seen as being role models or stewards of the common good, but rather as predatory plutocrats who profit disproportionately at the expense of the majority of the population. G. Petriglieri and J. Petriglieri argue that we have experienced a “dehumanization of leadership” in which leadership is reduced from a cultural enterprise to a strict intellectual or commercial one, and in which leadership “distances aspiring leaders from their followers and institutions, resulting in a disconnect their inner and outer worlds.”
Robert Sutton was one of the first leadership experts to draw attention to the prevalence of abusive bosses and how organizations should screen them out, as detailed in his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. He points out that tech firms, particularly those in Silicon Valley are where abusive leaders thrive. His article in the Harvard Business Review on the subject received an overwhelming response of affirmation. He says in business and sports it is assumed if you are a big winner, you can get away with being a jerk. Sutton argues such bosses and cultures drive good people out and claims bad bosses affect the bottom line through increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment and performance. He says the time spent counselling or appeasing these people, consoling victimized employees, reorganizing departments or teams and arranging transfers produce significant hidden costs for the company. And he warns organizations this behavior is contagious. Research suggests not only that some bosses are jerks but that many of them are bosses because they are jerks.
Paul Babiak’s book Snakes in Suits profiles how some functional psychopaths can fake it untill they make it up the corporate ladder through charm and guile, pointing out how statistically significant evidence shows psychopaths are overrepresented in Corporate America.
An Interact/Harris Poll was conducted online with roughly 1,000 U.S. workers. In the survey, employees called out the kind of management offenses that point to a striking lack of emotional intelligence among business leaders, including micromanaging, bullying, narcissism, indecisiveness, and more.
Incivility also hijacks workplace focus. According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27 percent tied such behavior to patient deaths.
Swedish researchers, led by Anna Nyberg at the Stress Institute in Stockholm, have published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine on the issue of leaders' behavior and employee health. They studied more than 3,100 men over a 10 year period in typical work settings. They found that employees who had managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative, the employees were 60% more likely to suffered a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition. By contrast, employees who worked with "good" leaders were 40% less likely to suffer heart problems.
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35% of the American workforce (or 53.5 million people) has directly experienced bullying–or “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or sabotage of work performance”–while an additional 15% said they have witnessed bullying at work. Approximately 72% of those bullies are bosses.
Jean Lipman-Blumen, in her book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders, describes how toxic leaders create “serious and enduring harm” on their followers, employees and their organizations. Recent polls of the American public shows some of the lowest trust results in decades for elected members of Congress and business leaders. She identifies toxic leaders’ behaviors as follows:
Lipman-Blumen contends that even the media has difficulty resisting the seductive appeal of toxic leaders, citing examples from leading publications such as Time, BusinessWeek, Forbes and Fortune extolling the virtues of a number of failed narcissistic and toxic leaders such as Dennis Kozlowski, Kenneth Lay and Al Dunlap.
Americans are obsessed with narcissistic leaders, or at least they have an ambivalence between the ones they like and the ones they promote. A case in point is Real Estate baron and presidential candidate Donald Trump. Not that he is alone. At various times, similar attention and popularity have been heaped by the public and especially by the media for leaders such as Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca and Larry Ellison. Some observers have openly called Trump a narcissist in terms of a classical definition. Stephanie Marsh used the Narcissistic Personality Disorder description contained in the psychologists/psychiatrists Bible, the DSM-V as an assessment for Trump, concluding there was a match with the following traits:
Not that their hubris doesn’t pay off. According to a research study completed by Charles A. O’Reilly III at Stanford’s business school. O’Reilly and his colleagues surveyed employees in 32 large, publicly traded tech companies. He contends that bosses who exhibits narcissistic traits like dominance, self-confidence, a sense of entitlement, grandiosity and low empathy, tend to make more money than their less self-centered counterparts, even if the lower-paid CEOs exhibit plenty of confidence. O’Reilly says of the narcissists, “they don’t really care what other people think and depending on the nature of the narcissist, they are impulsive and manipulative.” O’Reilly goes on to argue the longer narcissistic leaders are at the helm, the higher their compensation in comparison with the rest of the leadership team, or in some cases the narcissistic bosses fire anyone who dares to question or challenge them. There is a dark downside to this appearance of success however, O’Reilly contends. Company morale often declines, and employees leave the company. And while the narcissistic or abusive leaders may bring in the bigger paychecks, O’Reilly says there is compelling evidence that they don’t perform any better than lower-paid, less narcissistic counterparts.
While Steve Jobs was a charismatic visionary, and brilliant innovator, Walter Issacson’s biography showed him to be rude, controlling and mean-spirited, never hesitating to humiliate Apple employees and take credit for others’ work. Since his death, there has been a flood of articles and books and seminars extoling Job’s leadership style, many of which argue that it’s okay to be an “asshole” as long as you are financially successful. In my article in The Financial Post I make the point: “The concern I have, and that it is reflected by other leadership experts, is the faulty cause and effect, and “ends justifies the means” arguments that hold up Jobs as a leader to be emulated. It goes something like this: It doesn’t matter what kind of boss you are like (meaning abusive), as long as you get results (financial); and any methods to get there are okay, including abusing people.”
While narcissists may look like good leaders, according to a new study by a group of psychology researchers from the University of Amsterdam, they’re actually really bad at leading. The study is in the journal Psychological Science. Here’s the abstract: “Although they are generally perceived as arrogant and overly dominant, narcissistic individuals are particularly skilled at radiating an image of a prototypically effective leader. As a result, they tend to emerge as leaders in group settings. Despite people’s positive perceptions of narcissists as leaders, it was thus far unknown if and how leaders’ narcissism is related to the actual performance of those they lead. We proposed and found that although narcissistic leaders are perceived as effective due to their displays of authority, leaders’ narcissism actually inhibits information exchange between group members and thereby negatively affects group performance.”
Writing in the Harvard Business Review Michael Maccoby identified the weaknesses of a narcissistic leader, including this: “Despite the warm feelings their charisma can evoke, narcissists are typically not comfortable with their own emotions. They listen only for the kind of information they seek. They don’t learn easily from others. They don’t like to teach but prefer to indoctrinate and make speeches. They dominate meetings with subordinates. The result for the organization is greater internal competitiveness at a time when everyone is already under as much pressure as they can possibly stand. Perhaps the main problem is that the narcissist’s faults tend to become even more pronounced as he becomes more successful.”
Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic has pondered the question of “Why We Love Narcissists.” He argues when narcissists, however productive some may be, “have parasitic effects on society. When in charge of companies they commit fraud, demoralize employees and devalue stock. When in charge of countries they increase poverty, violence and death rates.” Chamorrow-Premuzic analyzed decades of research on narcissistic leaders and concluded these key findings:
Lord David Owen identified hubris—overconfidence and exaggerated pride along with a shaming and contempt for others) as another term to describe narcissistic leaders. He says that, among other character traits, they have a strong belief that any action they take, even if illegal, will be vindicated in legal courts or that of public opinion. He says the “hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”
Emma SEPPÄLÄ provides us with hard data on the value of being a “nice boss.” She argues that research shows that “tough managers” often mistakenly think that putting pressure on employees will increase performance, but when it does is increase stress, which has many negative effects. She cites a study that also shows that when leaders are fair to the members of their team, the team members display more citizenship behavior and and are more productive.
Fred Kiel, founder of KRW International, and author of The Return on Character, says there is a widely accepted belief in the business world and business schools that a good leader is a “hard-nosed driver.” Kiel argues the opposite. He contends that jerks who exhibit poor character cost a company money, based on his study of 84 CEOs. Kiel used 25 positive character traits such as telling the truth, keeping promises, admitting mistakes, and forgiving others who make mistakes and measured CEOs against these criteria. He found that “high character leaders and their teams brought in nearly five times the return on assets to the bottom line as did low-character or self-focused CEOs.”
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that the firms with narcissistic CEOs did not perform any better than the firms with non-narcissistic CEOs.
Morgan McCall, of the University of Southern California’s business school, in his book, “ High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders, says of narcissistic leaders that eventually their flaws catch up with them, particularly when they get in trouble.
What Research Says About Good Leaders
Christina Boedker of the Australian School of Business conducted a research study on the link between leadership and organizational performance and collected data from more than 5600 people in 77 organizations. She concluded that the ability of leaders to spend more time and effort developing and recognizing people, welcoming feedback, and fostering co-operation among staff were critical to success. Moreover, out of all the various elements in a business, the ability of a leader to be compassionate, “to understand people’s motivators, hopes and difficulties and to create the right support mechanism to allow people to be as good as they can be,” had the greatest correlation with profitability and productivity, Boedker concluded.
William Baker and Michael O’Malley, authors of Leading With Kindness, argue that the practice of kindness in corporations has a positive impact on bottom line business results. They argue that a management style, which could be called transformational, that has these traits—compassion, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility and humor—improves employee performance and employee retention.
Humble leaders are more effective and better liked, according to a study published in the Academy of Management Journal "Leaders of all ranks view admitting mistakes, spotlighting follower strengths and modeling teachability as being at the core of humble leadership," says Bradley Owens, assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management. "And they view these three behaviors as being powerful predictors of their own as well as the organization's growth."
The more honesty and humility an employee may have, the higher their job performance, as rated by the employees' supervisor. That's the new finding from a Baylor University study published in in the journal Personality and Individual Differences that found the honesty-humility personality trait was a unique predictor of job performance.
"Researchers already know that integrity can predict job performance and what we are saying here is that humility and honesty are also major components in that," said Dr. Wade Rowatt, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, who helped lead the study. "This study shows that those who possess the combination of honesty and humility have better job performance. In fact, we found that humility and honesty not only correspond with job performance, but it predicted job performance above and beyond any of the other five personality traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness."
The Baylor researchers found that those who self-reported more honesty and humility were scored significantly higher by their supervisors for their job performance. The researchers defined honesty and humility as those who exhibit high levels of fairness, greed-avoidance, sincerity and modesty.
"This study has implications for hiring personnel in that we suggest more attention should be paid to honesty and humility in applicants and employees, particularly those in care-giving roles," said Megan Johnson, a Baylor doctoral candidate who conducted the study. "Honest and humble people could be a good fit for occupations and organizations that require special attention and care for products or clients. Narcissists, on the other hand, who generally lack humility and are exploitative and selfish, would probably be better at jobs that require self-promotion."
Amy Y. Ou and her colleagues at Arizona State University published a study in Administrative Science Quarterly in which they suggested it would be interesting to look at some of the leadership traits that include self-awareness, openness to feedback, and a focus on the greater good and others’ welfare, as opposed to dwelling on oneself have more positive impact on employees and the organization. Together with three other colleagues in the U.S. and China, the researchers wound up interviewing the CEOs of 63 private Chinese companies. They also gave surveys to 1,000 top- and mid-level managers who worked with the CEOs. The surveys and interviews aimed to determine how a humble leadership style would affect not so much the bottom line as the top and mid-level managers who worked under the CEOs. Did managers feel empowered by CEOs’ humility, did they feel as though they were invited into company decision-making, and did that lead to a higher level of activity and engagement? The study’s conclusion: The more humble the CEO, the more top- and mid-level managers reported positive reactions. Top-level managers said they felt their jobs were more meaningful, they wanted to participate more in decision-making, they felt more confident about doing their work and they had a greater sense of autonomy. They also were more motivated to collaborate, to make decisions jointly and to share information. Likewise middle managers felt more engaged and committed to their jobs when the top boss was more humble. “There is a negative stereotype that humble people are weak and indecisive,” Angelo Kinicki, one of the co-authors of the report, “That’s just not the case.”
In an article in The Harvard Business Review entitled “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” leadership expert Jim Collins argues Level 5 leaders, the best leaders exhibit the following characteristics:
Rob Nielsen, author of Leading with Humility, argues that some narcissistic business leaders are treated like rock stars but who leaders who are humble and admit mistakes outshine them all. There’s a difference between being a humble leader and being wishy-washy or overly solicitous of others’ opinions, says Arron Grow, associate program director of the School of Applied Leadership at the City University of Seattle and author of How to Not Suck as a Manager. He says being humble doesn’t mean being a chump and describes 6 ways in which leaders can be more effective by being more humble. Elizabeth Salib takes up on this theme in her article in The Harvard Business Review, contending the best leaders are humble leaders. She cites Google’s SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, who says humility is one of the traits he’s looking for in new hires.
A recent Catalyst study backs this up, showing that humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included. In a survey of more than 1500 workers from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the U.S., Catalyst found that when employees observed altruistic or selfless behavior in their managers—a style characterized by acts of humility, such as learning from criticism and admitting mistakes, they were more positive and committed to their work teams.
Fred Kiel, head of the executive development firm KRW international, recently studied 84 CEOs and more than 8,000 of their employees over the course of seven years. The results, written up in the Kiel’s recent book Return on Character found that people worked harder and more happily when they felt valued and respected. So-called “character-driven” CEOs who possess four virtues—integrity, compassion, forgiveness, and accountability—lead companies whose returns on assets are five times larger than those of executives who are more self-centered, he found.
Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the George Mason University School of Business examined what they call a “culture of companionate love,” which involves feelings of affection, compassion, caring, and tenderness among co-workers at long-term care facilities. Though less intense than romantic love, the strong emotions involved still help create bonds between people. 16 months later the researchers checked in with each group. It turned out that a strong culture of compassionate love predicted benefits all around: less burnout, fewer unplanned absences, more teamwork, and higher work satisfaction for employees; fewer emergency room trips and higher mood, satisfaction, and quality of life for patients; and more satisfaction with the facility and willingness to recommend it for families. Research suggests that compassionate workplaces increase employee satisfaction and loyalty. A worker who feels cared for at work is more likely to experience positive emotion, which in turn helps to foster positive work relationships, increased cooperation, and better customer relations. Compassion training in individuals can reduce stress, and may even impact longevity. All of these point to a need for increasing compassion’s role in business and organizational life.
According to a study by Bradley Owens, of the University at Buffalo School of Management, humble leaders are more effective and better liked. A follow up study that is forthcoming based on data from more than 700 employees and 218 leaders confirmed that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees and lower voluntary turnover.
David Rand at Yale University argues that employees in all industries increasingly desire leaders who are more like Ghandi and less like the Wolf of Wall Street. The PR firm Ketchum conducted a 2014 leadership survey, and concluded there’s a “seismic move away from an outdated, ‘macho’ model of solitary leadership—a command-and-control approach centered on one-way rhetoric, obsessively controlled messaging and solitary decision-making—and towards a new, more ‘feminine’ archetype.”
So Why Are We Such Hypocrites About Who We Want For Leaders?
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford University business professor, in his new book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, describes how we’ve developed a mythology of leadership, arguing that most conventional wisdom about it “BS.” He says “Leaders fail their people, their organizations, the larger society and even themselves with unacceptable frequency.” He points to overwhelming evidence that shows dysfunctional workplaces filled with disengaged, dissatisfied employees who don’t trust their leaders and can’t wait to leave their jobs.
It seems, Pfeffer argues, that there is a clear divergence in the interests of corporate leaders and the groups that study leadership, and the average employee. He says: “Individuals maximize their own survival chances by acting selfishly to acquire at all costs the resources for survival. Group survival, however, depends on individuals sacrificing their own well-being for that of the group.” Perhaps this explains the never-ending increases in CEO compensation and corporate shareholder profits, while average worker salaries stagnate.
What’s the solution to this leadership crisis, and make no mistake we are in the midst of one?
Pfeffer would argue the answer lies in measuring outcomes. He says the current measurement of leadership improvement activities is pathetic. We measure leadership development based on whether the participants “liked” their experience (in University or corporate training programs) versus whether the activities actually made any difference in the workplace.
All too often, the experience of the average worker, or the average citizen is to hear a bunch of platitudinous “inspirational” sound bites from leaders intended—like the football coaches locker room speech—to motivate the troops, with little concrete follow-up or substance. So people become cynical and distrustful of their leaders.
Pfeffer concludes that the leadership training industry itself has failed to produce good leaders. He cites the supporting work of other experts such as Barbara Kellerman at Harvard University.
Herein lies the irony, Pfeffer argues. Despite all the substantial research on what is supposed to constitute good leadership in the past three decades, we still are experiencing “an enormous psychological and even physical toll exacted on employees from bullying, abusive bosses.”
Pfeffer proposes an answer to why this has occurred. He argues that too much leadership development efforts have been more like preaching—“telling people inspiring stories about heroic leaders and exceptional organizations,” while not much has actually changed in workplaces. He provides another sobering conclusion: “the qualities we actually select for and reward in most workplaces are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees, or for that matter, long-term organizational performance.”
Perhaps the most interesting way of looking at this contradiction is from an evolutionary perspective. Frans de Waal is author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society. De Waal is a biologist, professor of psychology and director of the Living Link Center at Emory University. In 2007, Time magazine selected him as one of the world’s most influential people. The distinguished scientist says it is long overdue that we jettisoned our beliefs about human nature—proposed by economists and politicians—that human society is modeled on the perpetual struggle for survival that exists in nature. De Waal says this is mere projection on our part. Nature is replete with examples of cooperation and empathy. Given all we know about empathy in other animal species, why do we persist in seeing human existence, particularly in business, as a fight for survival, with winners and losers? De Waal calls this the “macho origin myth” which insists that the human species has been waging war on itself as millennia as a reflection of our true nature. What has been ignored is the fact that empathy has been evident during that entire time. De Waal points to a mass of examples of sacrifice, empathy, co-operation and fairness in humans and other animals’ species.
Several things are clear. First, we are in a leadership crisis when it comes to confidence in our political and business leaders. Second, we say we want empowering, humble, and kind leaders—bolstered by research evidence—but we often choose authoritarian, controlling, narcissistic and toxic leaders. Perhaps it’s time for the general public, recruiters, and leadership development experts to end the contradiction and do what’s best for our organizations and society.
Ray Williams, a Master Executive Coach and Speaker, is president of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver providing executive coaching, leadership mentoring, and speaking services. More info at the Ray Williams Associates website.
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