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Thu 5 Mar 2015 03:15 PM

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Power: From Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader

Ahmed Sharawy on how some leaders exploit power to deliver value while others abuse it

Power: From Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader

A few days after Arabian Business posted my article Decision Making: Intuition vs. Ability, several readers were enthusiastic about the topic and interactive enough to share their related business experiences and challenges, which lead to thoughtful and conclusive discussions.

One of these business cases inspired me to write about power and how some leaders exploit it to deliver value, while others abuse it. The title for this article is inspired from the movie series Star Wars, in which Luke and Darth were at the two ends of the leadership spectrum.

Looking at our organisations, we see leaders at different locations of a spectrum that extends through inspirational, charismatic, narcissistic and psychopathic leadership. In this article, I will present some of the basic characteristics of each leadership approach, a famous example for each and a few suggestions to manage some types’ limitations.

An inspirational leader is a team player that brings out the best in others, by being a role model. He often uses the pronoun ‘we’, which establishes a two-way relationship with his team. Regardless of his knowledge and experience, ‘What do you think?’ is a question that he asks, after he expresses his point of view. A true example for an inspirational leader is Mahatma Gandhi, who said ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’.

According to the theory of social and economic organization, a charismatic leader is a divinely gifted person, who is treated as a superhuman with exceptional qualities, which aren’t accessible to ordinary people. Psychological projection is the nature of his relationship with his team, which treat him as an idealized leader. He, often, uses the pronoun ‘me’ and leads his followers to ‘Do what he says, to be saved’. Charismatic leaders often emerge at the times of crises and get removed after they’re over. Most of the time, their continuing magic conceals their unrealistic expectations and forecasts. Based on the common perception about their exceptional qualities and capabilities, their subordinates are, often, reluctant to challenge them. Hence, their next line of management often feels marginalized. A good example for a charismatic leader is Winston Churchill.

Unlike a charismatic leader, a narcissistic one is an ordinary person, who believes that he has extraordinary, unique and brilliant attributes that make him superior to others, who envy him for them. He has grandiose sense of self-importance, fancies unlimited success for himself and requires excessive admiration from others. He is highly exploitive to gain prestige, power and glory and he lacks empathy. A good example for a narcissistic leader is Harvey Pitt, who was the chairman of Securities and Exchange Commission from 2001 to 2003. He proposed a promotion and pay raise for himself, at the time his critics called for his resignation, because the Enron scandal broke out on his watch. In an interview, in 2002, he was quoted saying ‘it is an enormous advantage to the public to have somebody who knows about the securities business and the securities law as I do, and it would be unthinkable to deprive people of my expertise’

Having said that, can narcissistic people be effective leaders?...Although the American Psychiatric Association classified narcissism as a personality disorder, self-aware narcissistic leaders proved to be, evidently, useful and productive to organizations. A narcissistic leader’s need for public attention and manipulative approach make them eloquent enough to attract followers. Their vision, self-confidence and self-assurance can be inspiring to their followers and their perseverance to reject the status quo drives innovation, which serves organizations’ strategic dynamics. Nevertheless, it’s advisable to surround self-aware narcissistic leaders with confident consultants…not assistants…who are willing to monitor the risks they take and to question their business rationales. This ensures a reasonable business approach, ample attention to operational details and avoids boundary violations, without challenging or feeding their narcissism or misaligning their self-esteem with the organizations’ goal. A good example for a productive narcissistic business leader is Jack Welch.

At the dark end of the leadership spectrum, lie psychopathic business leaders. They are parasitic chameleons. Their deceitful and irresponsible behavior is concealed in their superficial flattery. They appear friendly, agreeable, ambitious, enthusiastic and honest, but they are evil by nature. They build strong relationships with powerful people and prey on naivety, generosity, innocence and trusting nature of others. A few psychopathic business leaders are known, because it is very difficult to uncover them, even by trained psychologists. Yet, a good example for a psychopathic business leader is Charles Ponzi, who started a fraudulent investment operation in which he paid returns to his investors from new capital paid to him by new investors, without investing the money and generating profits. Can we manage psychopaths?...I’m afraid not!...We should avoid them and be vigilant if we can’t, because they are very dangerous.

Having gone this far in the article, I think that it’s safe to assume that either you’re genuinely special or you believe you’re different, if all the people you can relate the article material to were your manager, wife, friend or anybody except yourself. The point I’m trying to make is that it is extremely crucial and critical to relate the leadership attributes discussed in this article to ourselves, before we start judging others leadership skills. “Nobody ever got muscles watching me workout” Arnold Schwarzenegger. Power is in developing our self-awareness, knowing our true leadership attributes and limitations to walk the path.

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Sharmila Borkar 5 years ago

A very insightful topic... I bet you are surrounded by all of these characters and hence potrayed well...! Can it be by chance, by situation or survival instincts? Anyways, what type of leader you want to be? :)

Bharathan 5 years ago

Brilliant article. Inspiring!!