article banner
People and Change

The Darker Side of Leadership

Neil Hughes Neil Hughes

I am a great fan of the work of Rasmus Hougard and Jacqueline Carter on ‘The Mind of a Leader,’ published by Harvard Business Review Press.  One of the areas that they reference in follow-up articles is that ‘Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership’.  This is worth reflecting on in more detail, particularly in the context of how close today’s leaders are to their people.

If like me, you are not too old to remember the days of Executive Only dining rooms and Executive Lifts in buildings, then it begs the question how those leaders effectively engage with their people and get to know what’s happening within the organisation.  Having visibility with your people is critical to effective leadership.  The benefits of your position, meant to elevate your status may in fact be undermining your leadership effectiveness!

What can you do about this as a leader? When you get promoted through the ranks of your organisation, your ego may get promoted as well! The first thing is to recognise this as a risk, not only for you, but also for the senior leadership team.  Being caught within an insulated ‘Board Bubble’ is very dangerous as you risk losing touch with your colleagues and clients, not to mention the culture of the organisation.  Behaviour breeds behaviour and tone from the top is critical in effectively leading any organisation.

The second area to focus on is recognition that what made you successful to date may not get you to the next level.  With leadership comes power and influence; and with that your team are likely to want to please you, by taking your lead in everything that you do and say.  All of these massage the ego.  Moreover, when the ego is massaged, it grows!  For leaders that have been in power a long time, there is the potential risk of ‘Hubris Syndrome’.

Dr. David Owen, a former British Foreign Secretary and a neurologist; and Jonathan Davidson a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University in Washington, coined the phrase ‘hubris syndrome’. Researching the medical history of UK prime ministers and US presidents, they identified symptoms and traits of hubris – a syndrome that befalls many who have substantial power over a length of time. A sample of the 14 symptoms identified by Owen and Davidson, included: using power for self-glorification, loss of contact with reality, an excessive self-confidence, and contempt for advice or criticism of others.

An inflated ego or sense of power may not itself undermine your leadership ability, in fact, some see it as a natural by-product of a successful leader.  There is, however, a darker side to many leaders, manifested in character traits such as extreme pride and over-confidence, coupled with a contempt for being challenged.  These can be summarised by the term ‘hubris’ that I referenced above, and can, if not addressed, ultimately lead to impulsive and destructive behaviour.

As a leader, you must recognise and respect that leadership is about your people, not your rewards and sense of entitlement that may come with your position. Maybe move out of your palatial office and eat lunch with your staff --it need not be lonely at the top.  It might be better to decline some of the perks that promote your status and power, and develop a sense of humility.  Encourage, develop and work with people who won’t feed your ego.  Hire bright people with the confidence to speak up and challenge you and the status quo.