What do we expect from our leaders? What we too often see however are values in compartments – universal values that apply here, but not over here, or not there; to me but not to you – neat ways of dismantling conscience.

We are tired, are we not, of watching senior directors walk away from catastrophes they are responsible for, retaining their bonuses, and moving on to other companies. We appreciate the church’s advocacy and protection, but are dismayed by the rotating of paedophile priests on to other churches and the bureaucratic unwillingness to accept responsibility or regret their actions. We want governments that invest in the community fairly, but hear ministers knowingly delivering half-truths, claiming failures as achievements, shouting down disagreement.

All of which leads us to the growing depiction of the corporate psychopath. Perhaps 1% of the population could be clinically diagnosed this way. Large organisations appear to be a conducive environment for sub-clinical variants to prosper. Boddy (2011) describes them this way.

  • Glib, superficially charming – smooth, persuasive when it suits them
  • Accomplished liars – convincing, and if caught can talk themselves out of trouble
  • Manipulating, conning – strong networking, seducing then using people
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth – bragging, defending a dubious legacy, above the rules
  • Lack of remorse over actions that harm others – attack before apology, no shame for ruthless pursuit of career, pass on blame for trouble they cause, destroy morale
  • Emotionally shallow, calculating and cold – harasses and humiliates others, or may say the kind words, but doesn’t feel them; inconsistent words and actions; unaffected by suffering
  • Lack of empathy – ridicule others, selfish, abusive, bullying
  • Opportunistic responsibility for own actions – blame others for own mistakes, taking undue credit.

However much these may anger us, or stray from published corporate values, they remain sub-criminal behaviours, most successful in unstable, chaotic circumstances. If these people can be led to self-awareness and to fully perceive the consequences of their actions at least at the logical level, their intelligence can guide their practical decision-making, to curb their impulsive, oppositional, non-consultative selves.

For managers – how can they identify such people in their teams?  Multiple sources/perspectives of performance evidence, including direct observation. And their peers – those who see these behaviours first hand, may suffer from them directly, and may sense the truth – how can they influence these challenges? For non-assertive peers, self-defence comes first. For assertive peers, evidence-based strategies will be required, with a reliable support group.

We are aware of over-used strengths becoming derailers, that leadership can have a dark-side. We are aware of challenges in our corporate, political and religious domains. Professional psychological assessment methods, used in recruitment and development strategies, and Top Talent programs, can also more formally identify them, and offer ways to manage them.

How do you do it? Why do you do it? Most companies only do half a job of building a leadership pool.

5 key steps are: articulate the need; spot talent; develop, then appoint, and then support them.

If any of these steps are missing or poorly done, the value of the programmes suffer. How do they go wrong? Politics for one.

The need: The ‘sell’ up front is nodded to, but not deeply believed. Yes we should manage risk, but budget is small, timeframes elastic, accountability anonymously shared or lumped on one poor graduate. Short-term wins over long-term thinking.
Spotting: who gets in? We hope the best and the brightest. We could use psychometrics (abilities and personality), external recruitment, recent business results, line manager recommendation. No method on its own is adequate, especially a nomination process – famous for pandering to ego, breeding king-makers, building loyal fiefdoms.
Development: Consider training, coaching, mentoring. I well remember a cricket off-spinner refusing to help a young star – “why would I help you take my position in First Grade?” Good in principle but internal competition can work against.
Appointment: When the rubber hits the road – unless the stars get appointed before they are ready, its not a fast track. And these appointment discussions are famous for elaborate means of protecting a power base. And if you don’t appoint, you lose them.
Support: Without transition coaching – helping them get started well, and attending to their handling of high pressure (anxiety), relationship building, political savvy, and new levels of leadership accountability, they can drown.
Attend to each step, and you can build a stable, talent-rich leadership pool.