Today, we shall begin with a few fundamental questions that we should ask ourselves, think through, and look for answers while reading this article:
- Why do leaders known for integrity and leadership engage in unethical activities?
- Why do they risk great careers and unblemished reputations for ephemeral gains?
- Do they think they won’t get caught or believe their elevated status puts them above the law?
- Was this the first time they did something inappropriate, or have they been on the slippery slope for years?
Here are some examples of leadership failures in the top corporate & political world:
- Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was asked to resign on charges of sexual assault.
- David Sokol, rumored to be Warren Buffett’s successor, was forced to resign for trading in Lubrizol stock prior to recommending that Berkshire Hathaway purchase the company.
- The former Chairman & CEO, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Mark Hurd resigned for submitting false expense reports concerning his relationship with a contractor.
- US Senator John Ensign (R-NV) resigned after covering up an extramarital affair with monetary payoffs.
- Lee B. Farkas, former chairman of giant mortgage lender Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, was found guilty for his role in one of the largest bank fraud schemes in American history.
Through the combination of power, charisma, and communications skills, these so-called “Big Bosses” force their direct and indirect reports to accept these distortions. Let’s review pointers below as to why such things happen even at such a high level.
1. Losing Touch with Reality
By focusing on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction, leaders causing entire organizations to lose touch with reality find it difficult to stay grounded. They lose touch with reality, even if the ability to define reality accurately was a key quality that brought them success in the first place.
Typically, these leaders reject the honest critic who holds up a mirror to them and “speaks the truth to power.” Instead, they surround themselves with sycophants who tell them what they want to hear. Over time, these leaders lose the capacity for honest dialogue, as others learn not to confront them with reality or the truth.
2. Craving Success
Let’s look deeper into the root causes of these behaviors. Losing touch with reality, which is one of the most common and dangerous traits of successful leaders, often results from the lack of introspection about who they are. Underlying these tendencies may be an insatiable craving for success caused by a burning desire to overcome narcissistic wounds from childhood.
These wounds may have been caused by perceptions that their parents did not love them, they are not good people, or the trouble they had in making friends in their early years. So they try ever harder to keep their string of accomplishments going so the external world will view them as highly successful.
3. Fearing Failure
The other side of the coin of craving for success is a deep-rooted fear of failure. Many leaders get to the top by imposing their will on others, even to the point of destroying people that stand in their way. By the time they reach the top, they may be paranoid that someone else waiting in the wings to knock them off their pedestal.
To prove that they are not imposters, they drive so hard for perfection that they are incapable of acknowledging their failures and their weaknesses. When confronted with information demonstrating their failures, they try to cover it up or to create a rationale that convinces others these problems are neither their fault nor their responsibility. Often they will look for scapegoats on who they can blame their problems, either internal to their organization or on the outside.
4. Making Unbelievable Mistakes
At this point, leaders are vulnerable to making bigger mistakes one after another, starting with twisting arms of the peer leaders within and then violating the law or putting the very existence of their organization at risk. In their desperation to keep their success going, they may wind up stretching the rules beyond legal limits. In some cases, their distortions of reality and powers of persuasion enable them to convince themselves and others they are doing nothing wrong.
In examining the behavior of leaders at this stage, one may conclude that they lack a moral compass, a sense of their “true north,” that keeps them centered. Some may have had a moral compass originally but lost sight of it as they got caught up with external gratification.
5. The Loneliness Within
It is actually the lonely at the top. No one doubts that. We hardly find them having lunch with their employees, except with the circle they tag as “vital few”. In fact, when someone is in that position, s/he knows that the lives and fortunes of so many people rest in their hands, and s/he is ultimately responsible for what happens. If they fail, many will be deeply hurt.
They try to deny that and shut down their inner voice because it is a constant reminder that long ago, they abandoned their true self. It is just too painful to confront or acknowledge, but it returns to them in their dreams as they try to resolve the irresolvable conflicts rustling around inside their heads.
This goes without saying that these supremely talented leaders were highly successful in their respective careers and at the peak of their careers. This makes their behavior especially perplexing, raising questions about what caused them to lose their track.
Leaders who lose their track are not necessarily bad people; rather, they lose their moral bearings, often yielding to seductions in their paths.
The reality is that people cannot stay grounded by themselves. Leaders depend on people closest to them to stay centered. They should seek out people who influence them in profound ways and stay connected to them. Often their parents, spouses, or children know them best. They aren’t impressed by titles, prestige, or wealth accumulation; instead, they worry that these outward symbols may be causing the loss of authenticity.