Loving and Loathing in Leadership

October 24, 2015

Amongst the eclectic selection of articles and musings in this week’s edition of the New Yorker is a typically engaging book review by Malcolm Gladwell, author of ‘The Tipping Point’. The book to which he turns his astute, lateral authorial eye is a true story called, ‘The Dark Art: My Undercover Life in Narco-Terrorism’. It’s a boys-own, true-story about an agent in the American Drug Enforcement Agency battling multifarious drug barons in the world’s poppy hot spots. The action-oriented prose might not be to everyone’s taste, but Gladwell is more focused on what the author’s perspective tells us about the murky reflections and psychological projections of the ‘good guys’ and their quarry. Although not explicitly intended by Gladwell, there is an important part of Gladwell’s thinking that has real implications for how we see success and failure for leaders and their organisations.

To provide a distinct lens on the review, Gladwell invokes the thoughts of a fifty-year-old essay about the psyche of American politics written in 1964. The essay is called, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” and is written by the historian Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s big argument in this essay is that American politics is riven by an angry paranoia (think about Senator McCarthy and his gang) that has two distinctive aspects. Firstly, an overriding focus on the individual ‘enemy’, which never considers the broader context or system. Hofstadter beautifully sums up this thought by describing the object of such paranoia as “clearly delineated; a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman – sinister, ubiquitous powerful…” Hofstadter’s second observation is that the enemy of the politically paranoid always seems in some dark way to be yang to their yin, a mirror image of the crusader’s own psyche; or, in Hofstadter’s words: “a projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him”.

However cleverly Gladwell has used the Hofstadter and ‘The Dark Arts’ as conceptual tools to critique US anti-drug policy, it’s really Hofstadter’s insight about the excessive focus on the individual that is at the centre of this piece. The truth is that the politically paranoid think and act as all of us do in at least one respect. When we’re considering failure or success, our focus is mainly on the individual and seldom on the broader context. We hardly ever give real consideration to the wider issues. Psychologists even have a name for this form of mental laziness: it’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error and it’s one of the most pervasive findings in social psychology. So it would seem that the paranoid are not alone in their prejudices.

One of the explanations of our individual-ism is that it’s a cognitive short cut, enabling us to make swifter decisions about people and causation without a long-winded, time-consuming analysis of the wider world. The world’s perception of Jeff Skilling, the now incarcerated, ex-CEO of Enron, is typical of this judgemental process. At the beginning of 2001, he was lauded in one business magazine as one of the most entrepreneurial CEO’s in the world, but, only a few months later, Enron collapsed and Skilling’s reputation had moved from ‘hero to zero’. Yet the lead attorney working for Enron’s shareholders declared that the Enron disaster was not about one man’s single-minded crookedness, but the result of ‘synergistic corruption’. He stands apart as a person who sidestepped the simplistic views of the Fundamental Attribution Error, adopting a system wide view. More recently, amidst the celebration and the rubble of the UK election this year, there is a discernible trend amidst all parties to attribute the glory or the gore to specific individuals rather than to engage in a more thoughtful debate about the inscrutable machinations of the broader political system.

There is another side to this perceptual bias that we had never considered before reading Gladwell’s review; a darker aspect more troubling than precipitously apportioning superpower, moral bankruptcy or just poor presentational skills to another human being. Those judgements are often, as Hofstadter describes, ‘projections’ of our own characters – the elements we love or the bits we loathe. So when we attribute some incredible success to pure individual effort, it’s almost as if we say to ourselves ‘I can do that’. Conversely, when we witness some form of failing, our inner voice seems to say, ‘I would never do that….’. The Fundamental Attribution Error doesn’t just skew our view about other people; it can create a lopsided notion about our own personality and capability…

So where does all this leave us? It seems to us that when judging leaders, we need to think harder, more broadly – not just about our evidence, not only about the wider system beyond the individual – but, even more importantly, about what our judgements tell us about ourselves.

Perhaps in that process of self-reflection is the real source of leadership.