The leader as a source of contagious destruction

Much has happened in the last two decades to re-shape our understanding of the effect we have on one another. There was a time when we used to think we were independent, autonomous agents who chose to react (or not) to another’s behavior. Those days are well and truly gone.

Scientists have shown in both animal and human studies that my disposition, my mood, my way of being shapes you and your disposition, your mood, your way of being shapes me. Philosophers and theologians, mystics and bio-sphere spiritualists have argued that we are all connected, indeed that everything is interconnected. In the last 20 years neuroscience has now shown this to be true, at least in so far as mood and disposition are concerned.

Depression is contagious. Anxiety is contagious. Agitation is contagious. These things are now accepted as true, though common sense would find this no surprise. In speaking of these new insights from neuroscience Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis in a HBR September 2007 Article state: “The salient discovery is that certain things leaders do—specifically, exhibit empathy and become attuned to others’ moods—literally affect both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers.”
Recently, I have been reminded and humbled by three cases of where this has been so true!

Case 1: The toxic Partner

In the first case, a financial services firm, recently removed a Partner who had made all problems personal and thereby politicized all workplace relationships. He manipulated his position of significant influence as a Partner to his own personal gain at the expense of his colleagues, displayed trenchant childlike stubbornness, and failed in the extreme to support or collaborate with his peers.

He was an extremely toxic influence in the firm who, by his behavior, made the workplace deeply unsafe for all colleagues no matter what rank or position. All relationships around him became defensive, based on power plays of colleagues with one another – there was simply no flow – a colleagues became highly self-focused.

Now with this Partner no longer part of the day to day experience of his former colleagues,entering the firm is like walking into a totally different organization. Morale is up, people smile at one another, they greet visitors in a welcoming and friendly manner, offer unsolicited assistance to one another, talk with one another. It is as if all have had a change of heart.

It is a salient example of what Pope John Paul I once said: “If you want to bring about change in a social system, find the precise center of power and remove it”. It is also a salient example of where one person’s paranoid and narcissistic bentcaught hold among his peers and infected the whole environment.

Case 2: The CEO who can’t stop being a lawyer

The second example concerns a global information technology company that has undergone a change of CEO in the last 2 years. Like all such transitions, there has been a turnout of some key ‘culture carriers’ from his predecessor and he has acquired senior officers with whom he feels comfortable: so far, not that unusual, I hear the reader think. Correct.

But he is not experienced in the product and technology on which the company is based and must rely on experienced operational leaders to both deliver the profit and advise him strategically.

Into this mix we can now add his patterns of interaction: to set up one direct report against another in competition, to use information selectively and politically, to change his mind frequently on strategic direction and decisions, to demean subordinates (read senior respected industry figures in his own company) in the presence of others, and to believe that public adversarial interrogation will generate valid and committed decisions. He believes the best way to conduct his senior executive team meetings is to behave as if he is prosecuting counsel in a courtroom.

It is frightening to see these same patterns of behavior be slowly adopted by his new-found subordinates, though the friends he hired entered the company already wearing these behavioral clothes. His way of being is fast becoming the company’s way of being. Of itself this is not a concern. But what is of concern is the increasing exodus of operational corporate know-how. Within another year at the most, the current positive share price will in all likelihood collapse as increasing operational dilemmas populate the market landscape surrounding this company and, even more tragically, many hard-working talented managers who have for years gone over and above to ensure the company was a high performing and excellent employer will be working elsewhere. Nothing short of a complete rebuild will be required.

Case 3: The charming thug

The third example concerns a mid-tier pharma client that enjoyed a dominant place in its global market niche, but was led for many years by a psychopath, in the technical sense of the term. Charming, energetic, risk-taking, intelligent and strategic this leader nevertheless ruled by being the “leader of the gang”.

He gathered around him and reinforced bullying behavior among his direct reports, at least those who were suggestible. The means was the end, and expediency was king. If you got in his way, you were quickly removed and characterized as a problem to be erased. If you had the Board and or the law on your side, then you were isolated, portrayed as incompetent and evil and managed out by deception, lies and covert strategies. The executive team, with one exception, was simply a gang of thugs.

When the law and scrutiny came knocking he removed himself from the company he had founded and led for so long. A new CEO with a functional persona was appointed to replace him. His successor lived by a set of values based on results and mutual support. As the new CEO rebuilt the financial performance of the company he struggled mightily against the remnants of his predecessor’s gang culture – even though many of the key culture carriers had also left the company. The gang style had so infected the behavior, thinking and culture that now, 2 years on, the replacement CEO is still struggling against it.

Case 4: The stress induced micro manager

The fourth and final example concerns a production leader in a local agricultural processing company. This leader was recently appointed to the production role having been trained in a different discipline, so he is not steeped in either the technology or the process. One section of his remit was suffering severe operational variability with frequent equipment breakdowns.

For whatever reason he chose to “get into the kitchen” and progressively monitor and micro manage every piece of the process in real time. As the operational variances continued and production continued to slip he became even more aggressive, demanding, controlling to the point where his direct reports could no longer protect their operators from his bile and fury. The stark tragedy of the situation was that all his subordinates at every level could see this meltdown over time of a previously functional leader. At the same time they could also  see he was well intentioned.

What they could not see was that this production leader’s superior was visiting on him the same level of scrutiny, unreasonable pressure and dysfunctional judgment to which he subjected them. Nor could most of them appreciate that if he appeared over demanding and punitive in style, then it was nothing compared to the level of criticism he heaped upon himself. At the core of the leader and his superior’s destructive styles was a deep performance anxiety, a very high self-imposed standard, and an inability to manage one’s own behavior in the face of these.

Now the leader’s operational managers are starting to transmit that same anxiety to their operators and front-line supervisors and these in turn are leaving the company in droves, thereby lowering corporate know how and exacerbating the operational variance, loss of production and loss of profit. A truly vicious cycle has developed as the system the leader oversees and adopts the very same anxiety patterns that drive his state of being and his behavior.

How is the leader, so is the organization

Goleman and Boyatzis point to the very serious consequences of this pattern by referring to the health sector when they point to the experience of workers at a large Canadian provincial health care system that had gone through drastic cutbacks and a reorganization. Internal surveys revealed that the frontline workers had become frustrated that they were no longer able to give their patients a high level of care”, turnover increased, morale and fear increased, and patient care quality vanished to the bottom of the oceans of industry benchmarks. It is a case of not only how are the parents, so are the children, but how are the leaders so are both the subordinates and the performance of the companies they lead.

In all four cases above, the leader’s way of being, their patterns of response, their mental models were infecting those with whom they worked and those whom they led. All four systems are on a road to destruction without a severe interruption. No amount of project teams, culture change programs, recovery task forces, lean initiatives, values workshops and the like will change the fundamental contaminant – the leader’s way of being. Until the leader changes his or her way of being, his or her style of engagement and approach to both strategy and problem solving the patterns will continue.

Perhaps even more sobering is that in three of the four cases there were company officers in even more senior positions who saw these patterns and allowed them to continue.

From a different point of view a high functioning leader likewise tends to create a high functioning group of patterns of interaction among those s/he leads. If they display in their own manner of being respect for their colleagues, a focus on results, a bias to collaboration and if they develop their employees in same, then over time that is what will emerge in the workforce. In cases of both a high functioning or a dysfunctional leader, neuroscience tell us that how the leader is, so will be ‘the led’ in their manner of interaction with one another.

You can’t keep a good pattern down

I am reminded of an engineering-focused organization that had enjoyed a succession of average to very good leaders over a period of almost 25 years. Successive CEOs had invested in their future leaders with intensive development, and there was a common language and set of working models that guided how employees were led, how decisions got made, how power and accountability were distributed, and how success was measured.

Then a sudden change occurred. Within months, a new CEO arrived who virtually emptied the ranks of the top two layers in the organization of corporate knowledge and shared mental frameworks. These roles were re-populated with managers who did not have experience in the technical field of the organization and who lacked functional leadership skills. Moreover, many id these same people felt they were rewarded for how well they could bring positive brand recognition to the organization more than deliver actual results.

Add to this the new CEO’s very visible bias to covert political forms of influence, his resistance to any form of dispassionate self-critical reflection, and his desire to promote his own personal brand, whilst professing distrust, dislike and disdain for the organization’s key stakeholders.

Morale sank to the depths of utter despair, and any who could leave did so – if they had not been pushed already.

Those who left have watched from the outside with abject dismay as the culture and highly functional way of working that had been part of the organization for so long was destroyed over the three years of his reign. Put simply they mourned for the best parts of what had been.

What is interesting, however, is that in the 3 months since he was summarily removed as CEO, like buds that had been covered in a harsh winter’s snow, those employees and managers who survived are showing now new signs of recovery: like fragile buds pushing up through the melting snow of spring. There are instances of tentative hope and optimism, of a return to concern for people in a positive and supportive way, of a focus on results that matter, and even some of the language is starting to signify that functional working models are returning. This is all during a hiatus where a new CEO has yet to be appointed.

I am reminded of a similar phenomenon in education. In the 1970s writers would talk of the public curriculum and the hidden curriculum of the school, the latter being the informal and often hidden set of tacit shared mental models of how teaching really gets down and how a school really works. If that hidden curriculum is strong and functional, it will lie dormant to resurface when the psyche of a different person leading the organization fosters and nurtures it, even though many of the more functional and historical key players may have moved on.  This engineering story also highlights that persistent good work creates a deep hidden culture that can survive the most deceitful of leadeship styles and still regenerate some core aspects. Additionally, it illustrates that the life and identity of large organizations is much more than that of their current CEO or even a significant sub-group.

I have witnessed this type of transformation a number of times in my career and what never ceases to amaze me is that many who left in the dark days went to other organizations and as leaders created new and even more vibrant and functional companies.

I wait with curiosity to see if the buds of hope bloom in the spring for the engineering organization.

Tim Dalmau

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