By Marianna Fotaki
Heroic leaders have a lot to answer for. For every Steve Jobs, there is a Ken Lay — the Enron CEO jailed for fraud that led to the biggest bankruptcy in US history at the time.
They are strong personalities, with plenty of charisma, but one of them was pulling a company in the wrong direction.
In the post-truth world, offering a compelling vision with a simple, resonating message has become the skill needed to ‘cut through the noise’, it has promoted the heroic leader, the strongman who can ‘clear up a mess’, ‘sort things out’ or ‘defend our rights’.
These post-truth leaders are driven and experts in understanding their audience, handing them a message they want to hear and adapting it to suit their purpose, creating an ‘us and them’ narrative so they can stand on the side of apparent righteousness.
It is not just politicians mired in half-truths, alternative facts and innuendo, but business has a long history of being less than transparent with the truth and cynically spinning the facts when it needs to.
The success of post-truth politics has normalised empty verbiage as a legitimate language, and so eroded, in much of the public’s eyes, any genuine difference between pundits’ claims and expert or ‘scientific’ assessment. And though it has emerged through the world of politics it must be remembered that post-truth’s chief architect, Donald Trump, has built his reputation in the world of business.
With trust now replaced by cynicism, organisations, especially in the modern swirl of half-baked facts and vociferous opinion on social media, have to fight harder than ever to build trust and legitimacy with their stakeholders.
This means rejecting the heroic leadership style so beloved in the popular media about leaders and developing a new way forward that highlights and dismantles the strong pull of narcissism that post-truth leaders reveal.
Narcissism is applied to individuals who are incapable of empathy, unable to relate to and totally unaware of other people’s needs, or even their existence.
Under growing uncertainty and the ruthless striving for innovation that characterises modern capitalism, it is increasingly observed in business leadership. Indeed, in 2004 author and leadership expert Michael Maccoby argued narcissists were good news for companies, because they have passion and dare to break new ground.
A culture of narcissism is a culture of echoes, where leadership and followership are bound by deep unconscious links and a shared identity that cannot easily be separated. Narcissism and narcissistic leadership therefore is popular because it can be flexibly used and abused, responding to any projection.
In the post-truth world, organisations must be wary of giving leaders — ‘strongmen’ — more power leads inexorably towards disappointed expectations and a cynical workforce.
Do mainstream leadership theories need just a little tweaking in order to become part of the solution? Or are radically new leadership discourses needed to move us forward?
To survive the post-truth world of claim and counter-claim, leaders have to make sure their organisation is producing an authentic narrative and its senior staff are displaying values that give credence to those messages.
This requires leaders to be transparent and vigilant for the narcissistic tendencies emergent in their organisations and the charismatic individuals that, by producing social norms and discourses that individuals or various groups effectively attach themselves to for obtaining viable social identities, end up pulling the firm in a harmful direction. This is especially important, as those those who want to be leaders are prone to narcissistic disorders as narcissism is often the driving force behind the desire to obtain leadership positions.
In any organisation this desire for power can be intoxicating as followers may project their own capacity for thinking and decision-making onto the leader. In this way they become disabled, or enter into a phase of dependency and this is where unethical behaviour can go unchecked and seen as the “way things are done”. Recent corporate history is littered with such examples, from the LIBOR scandal, where bankers colluded to manipulate the price of the major benchmark for interest rates and financial products, to dieselgate at Volkswagen.
Understanding how narcissism becomes increasingly prevalent in socially destructive ways is thus important for business leaders as they look to build trust within and outside their company.
Indeed, those who want to be leaders in an organisation have to tread a fine line that can wander into narcissism. They are moved by the desire to change the world and so they can create a wonderful new vision which can quickly develop into omnipotent disorders.
Narcississm may be what an organisation needs at some points, but even productive narcissists are often dangerous as they are divorced from the consequences of their judgements and actions, whenever these do not affect them directly. They will strive at any cost to avoid painful realisations of failure that could tarnish their own image and will only listen to information they seek to hear, failing to learn from others.
The media may have given us popular portrayals of corporate figures as ‘psychopaths’ who unscrupulously and skilfully manoeuvre their way to the highest rungs of the social ladder as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity. However, this is a misconception obscuring the pervasiveness of narcissism and mechanisms that enable it to exist in any organisation.
Public policies have also been subject to these pathological perversions. Separating risk from responsibility in the financial sector was not merely about creating perverse incentives enabling people to engage in greed through financial bubbles that were bound to burst, but about disengaging policymakers from the all too predictable consequences of such policies.
Another example is the dramatic shift in public policy that has occurred in Europe, where instead of ensuring liveable wages, access to affordable healthcare, public education and a clean environment, there is an increasing pre-occupation with how to unleash the alleged desire of citizens to enact their preferences of how public services should be provided.
The justification is that citizens want to choose between different providers to ensure that they get the best quality. However, at least in healthcare services, this is not borne out by the evidence.
It is tempting in the post-truth world for business to adopt the tactics that work, following narcissistic tendencies to appeal to emotion and develop half-truthful messages that will bring in followers through social media.
But if organisations are to prosper in the long-term they need to reject this model of leadership and build trust with their stakeholders in a collaborative way, that believes in transparency as well as caring about the consequences our actions have for others — it is the only method to banish the post-truth world.
Foroughi, H., Gabriel, Y. and Fotaki, M. (2019) “Leadership in a post-truth era: a new narrative disorder?”, Leadership, 15, 2, 135–151.
Fotaki, M., Kenny, K. and Vachhani, S. J. (2017) “Thinking critically about affect in organization studies: why it matters”, Organization, 24, 1, 3–17.
Marianna Fotaki is Professor of Business Ethics and teaches Ethical Leadership on the suite of MSc Business courses and Strategic Leadership and Ethics on the MSc Marketing & Strategy. She also lectures on Ethical Issues & Social Responsibility in Contemporary Business on the Undergraduate programme.
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