As if a child, I recently attended an excellent conference at the Cambridge Judge Business School on 'The Intoxication of Power.' Accompanied by the Daedalus Trust and a variety of adult CEOs and Non-Executive Chairs, we collectively offered support to our unfortunate colleagues in Management Studies in their quest to more adequately distinguish between charisma (good) and hubris (bad). By day’s end, we had secured four possible treatments for the corruption of business leaders by power. These were:
- Dancing (Tango)
- Therapy (Psychoanalytic)
- Self-Reflection (by the afflicted) and
- Decapitation (by the Board of Directors)
Each was examined for its etiological accuracy and prognostic effectiveness, yet all the while, as is endemic in the Study of Management, we were encumbered by newness. There was no history, little awareness of other bodies of knowledge and still less control of the concepts we were trying to use. As a result, we thoroughly enjoyed the day, but failed entirely to understand one another.
First, as so often occurs in Management games, we were asked to contemplate new thinking, here, a fish out of water, presumably a dead one. Dancing was then deployed to take us out of our comfort zone. It did that, and the Management Creatives were indeed excellent dancers, but filming our stumbling was a little cruel and no one really knew why we were doing it. Comfort zones, of course, were more widely occupied before the discovery of Management Studies, prior to which we drew on the altogether more discerning language of ideology to describe the unseen cage of habit. Now, as we joyously tread on each other’s toes, we are unsure what we are actually talking about.
Second came the therapy; fast, funny and poignant, though also strangely modern, as though Freud swaggered still across the pages of Hello magazine. We wept as we were forced to watch video clips of CEOs receiving criticism and insight was touted as the best remunerated treatment for hubris. Enthusiastically ignored was that problem first identified by Freud himself: that one cannot do therapy with narcissistic patients, even when they pay for it, as they have no insight whatsoever.
By now, the professors of Management were coming thick and fast, with collective games, audience participation by one person and long durée narratives of human evolution that conclusively showed how we originally caught hubris from animals. No mention of Hobbes, who in 1651, recognised that coordination enabled the murder of the strongest, nor of Rousseau’s articulation, in 1754, of the psychological effects of the transition to farming and private ownership. Instead, we had a drawing of Bushmen who, because their culture preceded civilization, developed ways to devalue individual success. Not a sausage about the rather more civilized Athenians and their careful use of ostracism and exile to deal with hubristic individuals (see Plutarch’s Alcibiades). Instead we surged, sans Darwin, to the present, where we at last came to rest, panting, poised and expectant.
Finally, great CEOs of the past tried to grasp the necessity of charismatic leadership and the need to pay the inescapable cost of ‘a certain amount of intoxication.’ All good points, as we do need a better understanding of leadership, of its usually outmoded and self-serving characteristics and of the difficulties of benefiting from the particularly capable, while also controlling them. Decapitation was then briefly examined, here taken to mean the removal of the corrupted manager by a Board of Directors that can no longer overlook the resulting financial costs of poor judgment and forthcoming public approbation. The altogether more surgical conception of decapitation, with its long and dignified history as a treatment for hubris, disappeared into the coffee break.
How can we get the best from our leaders? History was not in the room; nor was democracy. And Madison’s insight: that some political problems cannot be avoided but their inevitable effects can be managed, momentarily escaped us. We do need leaders, but not hubris. And we cannot look to those afflicted for a cure, either by dancing or therapy. Far more effective is to acknowledge that corrupted leaders will not treat themselves and instead need forceful containment, perhaps even in ways entirely alien to professors of Management: with vigorous forms of democracy. Vigilant citizens, a genuinely free (non-feudal) press, the constitutional separation of powers and time-bound public offices have been explored for centuries and should be drawn upon and perfected as we learn just how often corruption by power actually occurs and how it continues to damage our societies and organisations, our planet and our lives.
Though we are merely children, we are not the first to consider such matters. There have always been scholars of Management and they have always plied their wares as advisors to Kings. As we again contemplate the impact of poor Management on our societies, we must help our troubled friends in Management Studies rise above their alliterative and arbitrary mnemonics to rapidly evolve; to recover history, interdisciplinary understanding, a modicum of conceptual clarity and an altogether greater appreciation of their own impact on the important and deeply mystified phenomenon of leadership.