Insights

Development from authority to a sense of infallibility

This is what I can do”, he said. Looking at me with a hopeful glance. While working for a large company, in his spare time he studied changes in behaviour of people in leadership positions. Over the years he became convinced he was onto something and decided to raise funding for further research to culminate in a thesis and his PhD.

The core of his insight was his personal experience that leaders change their behaviour the longer they are on the job. Their authority grows but with it comes an increasing sense of infallibility of a pathological nature. This becomes apparent in the way they write. By analysing everything written by a person over the years and using an intricately designed algorithm, changes in behaviour towards a psychopathological attitude can be detected early.

It is well known that power can corrupt. It is also known that an estimated 3% of all top-level management in the corporate environment show psychopathic behaviour opposed to 1% of the normal population. This fact in itself is not surprising. Some traits of this kind of personality makes them highly successful. They are reward and goal driven, persuasive and charming, emotionally stable, live in the moment and have high self-confidence. On the darker side, they can be manipulative, emotionally ruthless and potentially criminal. They can hide in plain sight. However, for a keen observer, they give themselves away by insincere charm, grandiose self-perception, impulsivity, irresponsibility and a tendency to break the rules.

My interlocuter triggered in my mind a number of people I know with more or less the traits mentioned above. People who started a business, made it very successful and over the years started to express more and more the darker side of psychopathic behaviour. As if the accumulation of successes made them believe they are infallible, their solutions are the best and bending the rules is justified because they are always right. At some point in time they stopped listening to other opinions and alternative ways of thinking about their business. Usually this resulted in the best people leaving the company leading to the decline of the business.

The hopeful glance was still there after I told him that in my opinion his insight surely had an academic value but aside from ethical issues, it would be impractical. I could not imagine someone from HR pressing a button every month and presenting the results of the algorithm to a board or governor. The best preventive action should be for leaders to put themselves to the test regularly and learn how to reflect on their own behaviour with help of a behavioural scientist. Prevention is key. Correction while staying in the company is usually not an option. Once this behaviour sets in, there is no way back but the way out.

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