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Thursday, 25 October 2012

Toxic leadership and the trouble with power

Too often leaders, who start off with the best intentions, go bad. It’s the power trip that goes to their heads and gets them in the end. We see it happening every day. Just this month we've witnessed the corporate arrogance of the BBC in attempting to cover-up the Jimmy Savile affair and the spectacular fall from grace of Tory MP and now former chief whip Andrew Mitchell.

This is a politician who, as secretary of state for international development, got his results by being a bully. This time however, he made the fatal mistake of picking on someone a lot bigger and more powerful than him – the police (or the police federations at least) – allegedly calling them ‘plebs’ and ‘morons’. His arrogance cost him his job when an officer wouldn't let Andrew take his bike through the front gates of Number 10. No doubt the sobering experience of unemployment will be a lesson that brings him back down to earth.

Power corrupts
We come across power maniacs in all areas of our lives. They can be politicians, councillors, school governors, company bosses, celebrities, church officials – just about anyone in a position of power that’s unchallenged for too long. Lord Acton’s words ‘Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ are wise ones indeed. It’s when the powerful are allowed to rule unfettered – usually because people are afraid of them or can’t face the agony of formally challenging them - that they become ‘toxic’.

As ‘Team Cameron’ and ‘Team Obama’ set their sights on second terms of office, let’s hope that they don’t turn toxic. Richard Nixon’s spectacular fall from the American presidency happened because he was arrogant enough to think that the rules which apply to us – namely right and wrong – didn't apply to him. Why? Because he believed he was acting in his party’s best interests and he was above the law. What a mistake!

Great leaders are great listeners

Great leadership is, first and foremost, about listening and letting other people have their say. It’s about handling power and influence with responsibility, humility and due care. It’s also about treating people with respect and remembering that everyone is entitled to an opinion and free speech without fear of retribution.

There’s an interesting study by the University of Exeter which explores how leaders fall from grace. It happens when they stop listening to the people they lead and start believing in their own self-importance and hype. The study also shows how people in leadership positions so often become intoxicated by power. When they do, the bullying and harassing behaviour starts. Why? Because they know people are afraid of them, or at least can’t be bothered with the angst involved in formally challenging them, and they can get away with it. And for a time, while their followers are willing to collude, they do.

The study also shows that great leaders have common success strategies. These include being good listeners and being sensitive to other people’s views and opinions. They tend to be positive, modest and inspirational people who share success.

In short, the best leaders are not driven individuals with aggressive, domineering personalities who act as control freaks. In fact, the research clearly suggests that, the more power leaders or managers get and the bigger their heads swell, the more out of touch with reality they’ll become. People in positions of authority need to keep in mind that the best and most successful politicians, businessmen and managers are good at supporting ‘all’ the people they represent.