I read a great article on the weekend by Nicholas Bray entitled The Psychopath in the C-Suite. The article referred to a personality called SOB, for Seductive Operational Bully. The article asserted that unburdened by the pangs of conscience that moderate most people’s interactions with others, such people qualify for the label of “psychopath lite”. Outwardly normal, apparently successful and charming, their inner lack of empathy, shame, guilt, or remorse, has serious interpersonal repercussions, and can destroy organizations. “Ironically,” the author observes, “many of the qualities that indicate mental problems in other contexts may appear appropriate in senior executive positions.” That is particularly the case, he says, in “organisations that appreciate impression management, corporate gamesmanship, risk taking, coolness under pressure, domination, competitiveness, and assertiveness.” SOBs have no sense of conscience or of loyalty to their colleagues or their organisation. They often do long-term damage to both through their deceitful, abusive, and sometimes fraudulent behaviour. Because of the way they operate, however, they are often “hidden in plain sight”.

In the words of my good friend Bob Lank, "there are two kinds of people in this world, those that get “it” and those that don’t". I’ve worked with some great leaders through the years and they always seemed to get “it”. The other thing I noticed along the way was that I worked with those great leaders but I always felt like I was working for many of the others that didn’t possess those same leadership capabilities. Their authority and power always seemed to come down to position and that’s about the least effective form a power a leader can possess.

Recently, I spent 4 ½ years in the company of one of the most dysfunctional leaders I ever crossed paths with during my career. A former colleague suggested on his departure from the organization that he’d learned a lot from the guy... unfortunately, most of it was what not to do. These are the lessons that I learned from this SOB, and the other dysfunctional leaders I’ve worked with over the past 30 years.

Trust is Paramount

Maxwell, Drucker, Buckingham and Coffman, Lencioni, Collins, and a host of others have been telling us for years that the foundational element for solid, effective leadership is trust. While it sounds straight forward, simple and intuitive, I continue to be amazed by the number of leaders that almost seem to go out of their way to break the trust covenant. My experience has been that this often presents as a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. The problem with that of course is that once your direct reports determine that you have multiple sets of rules you’re sunk. From a values perspective, being able to look someone in the eye and then do what you said you were going to do will engender a tremendous amount of trust.

Lencioni takes the concept of trust deeper and refers to the fact that vulnerability based trust is difficult because in the course of career advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. The vulnerabilities he refers to include weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal short comings, mistakes, and requests for help. When teams lack trust they burn energy managing behaviours and interactions within the group and are reluctant to ask for or offer help. Unfortunately, this type of trust isn’t built overnight, but using a few simple tools you can accelerate the process.

One solution is an exercise that is designed to improve team effectiveness. Much like an individual strengths finders exercise, it requires the members of the team to identify the one contribution that each of their co-workers make to the success of the team as well as one area that they must improve on or eliminate for the good of the team. Everyone reports their responses focusing on one person at a time. While the concept involves risk it can fast-track the development of an environment that is based on trust.

There are a number of great personality, and behaviour based profiles available to you. I happen to use the McQuaig system of talent assessment with my clients. My experience has been that this is a great way to help break down barriers by allowing the individual team members to better understand, connect and empathize with one another. Getting the team to focus on behaviour and realize that there is no right or wrong, good or bad inherent in a person’s behaviour takes the dialogue to a completely different level. Understanding the practical, scientific behavioural descriptions of the others on the team brings clarity to the diversity in how the team thinks, speaks, makes decisions, delegates, takes risk, collaborates and interacts with one another.

You Don't Have To Prove That You're The Smartest Person In The Room

Liz Wiseman’s book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter suggests that “we’ve all had experience with two dramatically different types of leaders. The first type drains intelligence, energy, and capability from the people around them and always needs to be the smartest person in the room. These are the idea killers, the energy sappers, the diminishers of talent and commitment. On the other side of the spectrum are leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these leaders walk into a room, light bulbs go off over people’s heads; ideas flow and problems get solved. These are the leaders who inspire employees to stretch themselves to deliver results that surpass expectations. These are the Multipliers. And the world needs more of them, especially now when leaders are expected to do more with less.”

As a leader, one of the most important things you can do is to ask questions rather than dispense answers. Lord knows that it’s not easy for some of us to do but with practice you do get better. Try this at your next meeting. The next time one of your direct reports asks you a question defer it to the group. In your next one-on-one meeting deflect the question back to your direct report. The only way that you will ever get them to find solutions on their own is to encourage that behaviour. The longer you keep dispensing all of the answers the longer they will keep coming to you.

Communication is the Most Powerful Influencing Tool

John Maxwell was quoted as saying “leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less”. Your ability to communicate has to extend beyond the push of ideas to your audience. You have to be able to pull information from the people in your organization and the best way to do that is to get better at asking questions. If you want to improve the level of engagement in your team or organization this is an absolute must.

Everybody is selling something at one time or another. It might be an idea or it might be a product but one thing is for sure the best sales people in the world understand that if they want to sell they have to create a linkage to the prospect/customer/colleague. In order to do that you have to understand what their current situation is to determine if what you are selling fills a need they have. Push communication in selling is often referred to as “showing up and throwing up”. It’s only when your product, service or idea aligns with the client need that they actually buy from you.

Remember that people don’t like to be sold, they like to buy and adjust your influencing style to include lots of questions. Try some of these on for size:
  • Help me understand…
  • Tell me about…
  • Share with me…
  • Describe…
  • Explain…

Another friend (Tony Scutella) refers to this as Mickey Mouse marketing…in the most favourable of terms of course. Mickey has two big ears and one mouth and the lesson is to ask questions and then listen more than you talk.


Susan Knolla
08/21/2014 1:09pm

Love this article and its so true. I find unfortunately while there are definitely some psychos out there (and I have worked for some of them) its the ones that are generally nice but lack leadership confidence that derail their employees. Due to their own insecurities and unwillingness to just be open they pretend they are in the know and hold others back. I have worked for several of them as well. The best leaders I have worked with our team as a team. We ALL had strengths and we ALL had weaknesses and when trust was high we generally mocked ourselves for those weaknesses. I think professional maturity should teach leaders (and others) its ok to say you don't know but leverage those in your team who do and just watch how successful you and everyone around you becomes.

08/22/2014 9:38am

Great point Susan. Part of the problem (IMHO) is that organizations often promote based on the experiences as an individual contributor with little thought to leadership competencies or capabilities. Combine that with a lack of training and it's no wonder so many 1st time leaders fail.


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