“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”
- General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
Last year, I wrote a book called “Driving Straight on Crooked Lines: How an Irishman found his heart and nearly lost his mind” It’s autobiographical about my experience in the Legion of Christ, an organization where I toiled for 20 years. Long after I left, I became certain that the CEO (Superior General, Fr. Marcial Maciel)), with whom I had collaborated very closely, was far more dysfunctional than I, our stakeholders, and the general public, ever imagined. It turned out that our super-efficient, wildly successful organization had very serious flaws. Flaws so grievous they caused a major international scandal which continues to affect the lives of many good people.
Reflecting on the leadership and organizational experience, I realized I had a great business-case study which warranted further reflection. Hence came the title for a speech I recently delivered to an international convention of financial executives, “How the Mighty Fail: Lessons in Leadership,” based on the experiences described in my book.
Until a decade before his death in 2008, aged 87, my CEO was a highly respected, internationally acclaimed, charismatic leader. I admired his vision, his commitment, and his drive. I didn’t pay too much heed to the “flaws” in his personality thinking that none of us is perfect. Little did I suspect the power of his “dark side.” Indeed I don’t think very many people did until he was in his late eighties. By then I had left the organization.
Every successful business needs effective leaders to utilize the skills of staff in order to achieve the aims of the business. This isn't just a matter for larger businesses - even a business that employs only one or two people still needs the abilities of a good leader.
I agree that most leadership results in both desirable and undesirable outcomes. However, dysfunctional leaders tend to have a selfish orientation. They focus on their needs and wants as opposed to the needs of their constituents and the larger social organization. As a management consultant I, and my colleagues, are constantly faced with “deficient leadership” issues that result in the lack of trust, poor communications, and lack of team cohesion. During the past five or so years and, especially as a result of the global recession, the media has focused our attention on several acclaimed leaders whose conduct has caused disastrous consequences, way beyond what we might typically associate with inept leadership.
Using the “business-case,” described in “Driving Straight on Crooked Lines” I want to dedicate a few postings to the phenomenon of "destructive leadership." What is it? What are the causes and contributing factors? What are the outcomes? How can we identify the traits in the leaders we choose? How can we mitigate its effects?
Destructive leadership compromises the quality of life for an organization's constituents. It undermines the achievement of corporate goals. Despite apparent successes, a lot of people can be hurt and a lot of damage can be done. I'll suggest that Fr. Maciel's leadership was “destructive” and not merely “deficient,” while suggesting an explanation for why he behaved the way he did and how he managed to deceive so many good people. My objective is to see what lessons can be learned from my experiences with him.
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