Flaws in Leadership Culture

Flawed leadership cultures

By Roopen Roy Nov 20 2012

Tags: Op-ed


FANTASY OF POWER? In the political arena, many examples of megalomaniac leaders are Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-II. In this April 10, 2011 file photo, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi gestures to his supporters in Tripoli, Libya

Charles Handy in his seminal wo­rk “Gods of Management” descri­bed four types of organisational culture and named them after four Greek gods: Zeus represents the Club culture. The leader here is the Spider who weaves the web. The organisational web shakes whenever he makes a move. Robber barons had this culture. Start-ups usually have a Zeus culture.

Apollo culture represents rules, order and structure —very common in large business organisations. Athena culture is task based. It is prevalent in organisations that do problem-solving and require creativity and freedom like advertising firms and consulting.

Dionysus culture is very individualistic based on full freedom, contempt for bureaucracy, consensus and superior knowledge of members of the organisation in specific fields. R&D outfits and universities usually have this culture. From my experience, I would like to add two types of leadership cultures that are harmful to organisations. I could have given them names of gods from the Hindu pantheon, but I decided not to. I will simply call them: The megalomaniac and the secret schemer. In the political arena, we have many examples of megalomaniac leaders: Hi­tler, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-II. They promoted the cult of personality. Their portraits adorned every wall. Their ubiquitous statutes were prominently displayed. Sycophants sang their praise and fiction-writers authored their hagiographies. He expects subservience and unquestioned loyalty. Psychologists have defined megalomania as “psycho-pathological co­ndition ch­aracterised by delusional fantasies of power, relevance, or omnipotence.”

I will start with a true anecdote. I knew a corporate boss who was afflicted by this syndrome. Let us use the imaginary name of Johnnie Baloney to protect his identity. He used to present his employees with a doll. The head of the doll was oversized compared to its body. Instead of a solid connection, its head was rigged to the body by a spring. My cognoscenti friends told me that in America it is called a bobble-head doll. But wait. The bobble-head doll that he presented was a spitting image of Johnnie Baloney himself. He presented one ea­ch to his colleagues and subordinates. He expected each one of them to keep the bobble-head doll at his/her office desk. When I visited his office, I found the bobble-head doll on every desk, including his own. Johnnie was obviously not joking. The omnipresence of the bobble-heads on the desks and offices of those who worked for him proved this to me. There is a tail-piece to this as you might expect.

When Johnnie “stepped do­wn” prematurely, there was a major celebration. The revelry specifically included large-scale iconoclastic activities. The megalomaniac is usually intolerant of dissent and criticism. But he is different from a narcissist. The narcissist merely loves himself. Bertrand Russell famously described the difference, “The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved.” The megalomaniac culture thrives on flattery. The leader is usually surrounded by sycophants. There is no one who can dare say, “The Emperor has no cl­othes.” He is usually a control-freak and does not delegate. He does not allow strong leaders to emerge in the organisation. In the history of humankind, many dictators have been megalomaniacs. They have been conquerors and jingoists. Their delusion of gr­andeur have often taken their country to the paths of war and ruin instead of glory and peace. In the corporate world, megalomaniac leaders do not plan succession and the culture stifles innovation and creativity. It often takes the company on paths of acquisition, which are driven by grandeurs of size rather than creation of strategic synergies.

The second type of “leadership” culture is quite prevalent in India: the secret schemer. Let us call such a leader Mir Jafar. A secret schemer is worse than a megalomaniac. While the megalomaniac does not allow young plants to blossom under his shadow, the secret schemer, like the proverbial white ant, eats into the vitals of the organisation’s culture and makes it fragile. Let us take a little lesson from history. Mir Jafar in Indian history was a classic secret schemer. He secretly joined hands with Robert Clive to defeat and execute the last Nawab of Bengal Siraj Ud Daulah. He then achieved his dream of ascending the throne. But he never became the real ruler. He was a puppet of the British who needed a local face to mask their acts of plunder. Mir Jafar paid an enormous sum (in those days) of Rs 17 million as compensation and vast am­ounts of gold and bribes to Clive and his cronies. Mir Jafar bankrupted the prosperous treasury of Bengal and paved the way for centuries of misery and British rule in India. Secret schemers who adopt a conspiratorial style are weak leaders who operate from the shadows. The biggest danger of a secret schemer culture is this: The puppet as a leader will sacrifice everything to protect his position. It engenders a culture of intrigue, suspicion and manoeuvring. The tell-tale sign of this culture is the absence of a robust line of succession. The secret schemer typically comes to power th­rough coup-like regime ch­anges. Th­ese changes happen thr­ou­gh short-sighted board and/or ow­ner-blessed insurgencies. Wh­ere regime cha­nges are engineered through intrigues, the professional ma­nagement loses its natural leaders resulting in the decline of organisations, which once were mighty. In several cases, these businesses perish.

You only have to walk along the former Clive Street in Calcutta (now renamed Netaji Subhas Road) to see rows of skeletons of dinosaurs which once were mighty companies during the British Raj.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)