Why Terrific Leaders Can Behave So Badly

Last Updated May 17, 2011 3:36 PM EDT

On the subject of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest, the first thing that should be said is that the allegations of sexual assault haven't been proven yet. But what has already emerged is that Strauss-Kahn's attitude to women has long been obnoxious and widely known.

In their 2006 book, Sexus Politicus, French journalists Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois wrote of DSK's tendency to "seduction to the point of obsession" quoting female journalists constantly annoyed and insulted by his approaches. Even DSK himself confided to journalists from Liberation that "women" could be a problem in his planned presidential campaign.

So why did he get away with it for so long? He was aided and abetted by French privacy law which essentially rules out public discussion of private matters: a kind of institutional willful blindness of a kind that assumes that private behavior has no connection with public performance. But the key cause for his predicament was his narcissism.

And he's just the latest in a long string of leaders who have succeeded, and failed, due to an overwhelming insensitivity to anyone's feelings but their own.

Why Narcissus Rules in Corporate America

In a seminal article published by Harvard Business Review, Michael Maccoby wrote about leaders who have all the self-belief and charisma required to lead through catastrophe and bring about galvanic change. Maccoby cites as text book illustrations FDR, Churchill, Steve Jobs and Jack Welch. I'd add BP's John Browne.

Impervious to feedback and to any feelings besides their own is what gives these men (and yes, they are all men) the ability to deliver on otherwise daunting challenges. By all accounts, Strauss-Kahn transformed the IMF and was instrumental in rescuing the Euro, along with the shattered economies of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. He was able to confront the US deficit and to cut through the layers of political and diplomatic hot air that often characterizes supra-national organizations. These are not small achievements and they might be beyond the scope of an individual with a habit of empathy and critical thinking.

Lonely at the Top
But the dark side of narcissism is isolation. Narcissistic leaders lose touch with reality because they can't relate to anyone. They may be good talkers but they're bad listeners which, eventually, makes them uninteresting to peers. Narcissists unwittingly but unerringly demean those around them because they see no one but themselves and their needs. So eventually, they're surrounded only by slaves and sycophants. No one is rewarded for dissent or debate.

Moreover, powerful people appraise information differently. Academic studies have shown that they are more like to be optimistic, to think in purely abstract terms and, most worryingly of all, to be confident. In other words, they feel invincible. And that means they're prone to enormous risks. (Bill Clinton is the poster child for this syndrome.) Couple this with all the trappings of power - limousines, private jets, hotel suites - and the psychic isolation is made physical too.

The smartest leaders appreciate that power is a problem, not a luxury. Dominique Strauss-Kahn appears not to have been one of these. But beyond suffering from narcissism and the inherent problems of power, DSK seems to have been blind to two fundamental truths every leader needs to think about.

1. You're not in Paris anymore
The 'I' in IMF stands for 'international'. That means: running a global organization takes you outside your own mores and morals. What plays in France doesn't necessarily play in New Jersey or Beijing. There is all the difference in the world between a national and an international role.

2. The Personal is the Professional
We all do different things at home than at work. I don't cook in the office and I try not to give speeches at home. What remains consistent are the values I espouse in both places. Leaders who try to be one thing at work and something else in their private lives end up, at best, distracted and confused. More likely, their hypocrisy becomes evident and their authority wanes. Our private and professional lives may unfold in different spaces but we wear the same faces - and everyone can read them.

Why do you think there are so many examples of leaders behaving badly?

Further Reading:

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.