One big lie: Leadership lessons

Tags: Op-ed
Truth should set us free, but sometimes it also assumes ro­udra (fearsome) fo­rm resulting in an­ger, pain and violence. Imagine the pain in the family when a mother finds her studious daughter, whom she had sent for college studies to a metro town to make a great career, was running a parallel life of debauchery for years, totally contrary to the life of a student. The girl continued to be shy and demure whenever visiting her home. It was as if being trapped in two lives which had no meeting point. The consequences for the girl and her family were tragic.

A parallel hidden life can happen anywhere in any family and any community and ruin families and societies. Lance Armstrong’s belated admission of having taken performance enhancing drugs for years to win Tour de France titles is the latest in the line of celebrities, who breached mo­ral and legal lines of behaviour. Mike Hurd doubled as chief executive and chairman of Hewlett Packard before being asked to leave for putting dodgy personal expense claims on the company’s charge. General David Petraeus, the much decorated US commander, lost his CIA chief job for having an affair with his much younger and married biographer. Tiger Woods had his SUV smashed with a golf club by his wife over a massive cheating scandal and endless philandering. Paul Wolfowitz, former World Bank president and a primary advocate of attack on Iraq, helped his girlfriend get a $300,000 a year job within the bank, despite better candidates being available around. In 2008, Bernard Madoff admitted that all his investments in securities were fraudulent. In 2009, Allen Stanford, supposedly a philanthropist and West Indies cricket financier, was forced to admit that $8 billion claimed as ‘deposits’ were fraud. Closer to home, ‘Satyam’ Raju was systematically raping his own company taking out huge amounts of cash. Once discovered, he and his company (listed on New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ) were devoured. Also singed by the fire that Raju lit, were some India-born Harvard dons and McKinsey consultants.

The common feature of all these once-highly successful men was that for years, they operated highly organised and secretive operations, and fought and intimidated those who even suggested existence of such a parallel organisation. Why do people in leadership positions commit disruptive, clandestine and deviant behaviour that brings not only ignominy, but also inflict terrible sufferings on people supporting them? Perhaps, it could be because they find it impossible to dismount the tiger they chose to ride right at the beginning of their journey. The meteoric direction gradually gathers a momentum of its own, which ultimately leads to rapid collapse. Or it could be that having achieved positions of power, respect and glory such men come to believe in their own infallibility. Power, fame and honour drive these successful people to narcissism and egomaniacal tendencies. It erodes the power to differentiate.

Or, the individual may believe that his behaviour is ‘very normal’, as Armstrong said in his interview with Oprah. For Armstrong, doping was a requirement since everyone else in the business was doing it and to remain competitive he had no other option. The question here is, who decides what is normal, what are the reference points, and who is one trying to satisfy? What could be ‘normal’ in a minority peer group (a subset of society) may be completely out of sync with other subsets such as the family and community (legally, socially, and ethically). The bottomline could be: once the truth is out, will they be comfortable with their own family members (especially the most dear ones, for instance, Armstrong was talking about his son)?

The dual-personality element of Dr Jekyll (the good) and Mr Hyde (the bad), perhaps, coexists in every human. Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers theorised that people have a ‘hidden’ personality of which they are unaware. The ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ syndrome is exacerbated by image perceptions in mass media and the enormous amounts of money that get involved. Protecting an image, howsoever delusional, becomes paramount to save the edifice on which it rests. It becomes a zero-sum game.

Deception is ‘natural’ —chameleons and tigers are prime examples of animals using camouflage to prey and to survive. In that case, are humans any different from animals? Perhaps, the trait of deception is ubiquitous and necessary to gratify the carnal senses compounded by a sense of power and superiority. The biggest casualty of collapsed stars and fallen heroes is loss of mutual trust in humans. When breaches and erosions happen in society with regularity, then one is confused whom to believe in and whom to seek guidance from! What could be bigger tragedies of life than seeing relationships, spontaneity and gaiety go out for a toss!

A sense of history and detachment is necessary for the actualising human. The past heritage and our current actions as leaders determine the future. We owe it to the next generations that we leave a better world than what we were born in.

(The writer is a professor of strategy and corporate governance, IIM-Lucknow)

(This is first of a two-part series. Part 2 will be published in tomorrow’s edition)


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