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Why We Romanticize Ruthless Leaders

Cornerstone Editors

Stanford professor Robert Sutton famously coined the "no asshole rule" in his 2007 book by the same name. The rule, in effect, asked business leaders to question whether the office jerk's behavior should be tolerated, no matter how valuable his or her contributions. (Sutton wasn't subtle about his answer to the question.)

But others argue it's possible that dysfunctional leaders might just be the cost of doing business—and, in some situations, may actually be beneficial to the company. Executives from Martha Stewart to Harvey Weinstein, for example, are often hailed for their tough-as-nails leadership, and popular culture regularly romanticizes ruthless leaders such as Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street or Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly The Devil Wears Prada.

We talked with Andrew Munro, director at UK-based AM Azure Consulting and a corporate psychology expert, about whether toxic employees are inevitable, the nuances between good and bad (or "dark") leadership and why we love psychopathic leaders.

Are office jerks unavoidable in business, and if so, do they provide any value?

One argument is organizations are inherently dysfunctional because of human nature and the dynamics of social interaction and organizational hierarchy. As a result, dysfunctional people are fundamental to lead these organizations. If you look at business history, there's no shortage of very strange business leaders. Organizational life, at least at senior leadership levels, seems to attract these peculiar individuals.

Another argument is that the "dark side" of leadership is actually good. We seem to have fallen in love with our psychopaths. There are many books, including The Wisdom of Psychopaths, which imply dark leaders bring assets that businesses need to thrive — traits like ruthlessness, charm, tough-mindedness and risk-taking.

Which side do you agree with?

My argument is that there's a spectrum. I'm more interested in the context and factors that either encourage or discourage the display of dark leadership behaviors in the workplace.

If I'm a business leader eager to root out bad leadership, where should I begin?

First, look at your organization's strategy and structure. We saw during the global financial crisis, for example, that when organizations embark on bold, high-growth strategies in a highly competitive environment, there is pressure to take short cuts. Dark leaders thrive in those conditions. Culture, too, is telling. If the culture is highly individualistic, hierarchical or arrogant, alarm bells should ring.

I would also look at your company's reward systems and the extent to which incentives disproportionately reward a handful of people for short-term success — especially if there are no penalties for failure. If that were the culture, I'd expect dark leadership to thrive.

Any examples of companies that perpetuated those criteria for dark leadership? What happened?

The Royal Bank of Scotland is one example. Before the company became the UK's biggest banking bankruptcy, it was winning awards for its progressive management practices. It had all the warning signs about strategy, structure and culture, but nobody noticed. That's the irony.

Since 2009, some organizations have gone to the other end of the spectrum. The dark side of leadership isn't displayed as much. But companies now have another problem: They're wondering where innovation will come from. It seems difficult to find a happy balance between the positives and negatives of dark leadership.

Are there reasons to be optimistic that we, as imperfect humans leading imperfect businesses, can ever strike the right balance?

I think it is possible with the right values and commitment to long-term goals. Within the UK, there are many medium- to large-sized organizations that have been doing well, yet get little attention because people tend to talk about the extremes.

What are the leaders of those companies quietly achieving success doing to limit bad leadership that others can imitate?

Leaders should keep their heads down and focus on running a good business. Due diligence during the recruitment process is also key. It's important to interview people multiple times, check references and carefully select whom to hire in the first place. Then, be incredibly robust in the criteria you apply to talent progression and succession. Spend a lot of time looking at the people you're interviewing, developing and promoting.

Photo: Coztume

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