Do Organisations Mirror Their Leaders’ Pathologies?

That’s the view of a wise friend of mine, who had worked with enough of them to claim attention for his opinion.

Secretiveness, recklessness, risk-phobia — we’ve all seen an organisation mirror its leadership in such ways.  Again and again, companies become crazy under crazy CEOs, and people are caught up in the craziness almost helplessly.  Splits in the executive team can divide whole companies against themselves, even though everyone knows it’s stupid.

It isn’t automatic; there are staff who remain courteous and helpful despite the ingrained rudeness of their boss.  There are those who remain sweetly calm when their colleagues are hooked on the adrenalin hit of management by crisis.

On the positive side, some leaders are indeed able to communicate their dream, their spirit of service and their responsiveness to their people.

But I can’t help wondering what influenza of the head (or heart) afflicts apparently healthy boards when they appoint divisive, destructive, narcissistic CEOs.  If a man (usually a man) has a track record of playing with matches and then running away when the fire alarms start, why on earth would you appoint him leader of a company in a metaphorical fireworks factory?

The companies I’m thinking of tend to be large, visible, and politically exposed.  Their actions affect households and families in large numbers.  Their social licence to operate is their oxygen.  I hope, without malice, that after their walk on the wild side the directors came home a little sadder and wiser.

But does it happen at more subtle levels?  If pathological liars attract or choose other pathological liars to their team, does the rot spread?  Are there small but destructive ways in which, say, selective vision, hubris, or perfectionism infect an organisation from the carrier at the top?  Fish, they say, rot from the head.

It seems to happen, doesn’t it?  But how?  What’s the mechanism?  Mostly, the people who get their daily bread working in that organisation don’t say to themselves, “The new CEO is more of a gambler. I will be too.”  And although a good leader will deliberately try to communicate values that matter, a bad one won’t set out openly to corrupt the organisation.  With rare, and mostly criminal, exceptions.

I suspect we don’t yet know enough to understand these phenomena well.  Much has been written about communicating the vision and values of positive leadership.  Some of it is good, and some of it is informed by scholarship.  But very little seems to have been learned about how pathologies communicate themselves within an organisation.  It seems more complicated than just mirroring.

Perhaps the best we can say for now is that organisations react in complex ways to their leaders’ pathologies.

That’s what I think.  You?

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