Post-truth Leadership: Saviours who aren’t

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Prof. Marianna Fotaki

From the charismatic leader who has the answers to it all, to the omnipotent leader who can always save the day, she who can spin a story is the hero. In the context of a world where facts barely matter, Prof. Marianna Fotaki from Warwick Business School shatters the illusions of the post-truth leader who ‘can’ do it all.

By CoBS Editor Tanvi Rakesh from The Dangers of Heroic Leadership in a Post-truth World by Marianna Fotaki. With kind acknowledgement to Warwick Business School. 

Heroic leaders have a lot to answer for. For every glossy, magazine-cover worthy Steve Jobs, there exists a Ken Lay – Enron’s CEO who was jailed for fraud that led to the biggest bankruptcy in US history at that time. Both leaders boast of strong personalities, charisma in abundance, except that one of them was pulling their company in the wrong direction. Is the post-truth world responsible for the existence of these leaders? In the post-truth world, offering a compelling vision with a simple, resonating message has become the skill needed to ‘cut through the noise’. And it has promoted the heroic leader, the strongman who can ‘clear up a mess’, ‘sort things out’ or ‘defend our rights’. Although a relatively recently coined term, post-truth has existed as a philosophical and political concept since long. Moreover, the Oxford dictionary defines it as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

The post-truth leader’s resume

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Up to his old capers again

In her research, Prof. Fotaki explains how a typical post-truth leader operates – driven experts in understanding their audience, in handing them a message they want to hear and in adapting it to suit their purpose. “They master at creating an ‘us and them’ narrative”, Prof. Fotaki points out, “so their side can stand on the side of apparent righteousness”. It is not only politicians who are mired in half-truths, alternative facts and innuendo, but businesses too have demonstrated a long history of being less than transparent with the truth and cynically spinning the facts when they need to suit their purpose. One must not go amiss in dismissing that although post-truthism has emerged through the world of politics, it’s chief architect Donald Trump built his reputation in the world of business. In its success, post-truthism has eroded, in much of the public’s eyes, any genuine difference between pundits’ claims and expert or ‘scientific’ assessment by normalising empty verbiage as a legitimate language.

Narcissism rears its nasty head

In 2004, Michael Maccoby, leadership expert and author claimed that narcissists are good news for companies, because they have passion and dare to break new ground. Narcissism – a term applied to individuals who are incapable of empathy, unable to relate to and completely unaware of other people’s needs, or even of their existence – has lulled modern society, with narcissistic leaders possessing a seemingly magnetic pull. Under growing uncertainty and the ruthless striving for innovation that characterises modern capitalism, narcissism can be increasingly observed in business leadership. Prof. Fotaki describes narcissism as a culture of echoes, where leadership and followership are bound by deep unconscious links and a shared identity that cannot easily be separated. As a result of these interconnections, narcissism and thus, narcissistic leadership, are popular because they can be flexibly used and abused, responding to any projection.

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Floppsy becomes the Lion King

The narcissist’s irresistible pull

How does the cape-wearing glorious leader turn into an evil narcissistic villain? In the post-truth world, organisations must be wary of turning leaders into strongmen – saviours. Entrusting leaders with such power, Prof. Fotaki maintains, leads inexorably towards disappointed expectations and a cynical workforce. Charismatic individuals, by generating social norms and discourses in an organisation – which pull the firm in a harmful direction – end up creating followers. Individuals or various groups, in order to claim viable social identities, tend to attach themselves to these negative norms and values. Prof. Fotaki emphasises that this is especially pertinent, given that those who aspire to be leaders are prone to narcissistic disorders; indeed, narcissism is often the driving force behind the desire to obtain leadership positions. In any organisation this desire for power can be intoxicating as followers may project their own capacity for thinking and decision-making onto the leader. In this way they become disabled and enter a phase of dependency with the leader. This point, Prof. Fotaki asserts, is where unethical behaviour can go unchecked and begin to be considered as the ‘way things are done’. This is easily illustrated through recent corporate history, which is littered with several examples – from the LIBOR scandal, where bankers colluded to manipulate the price of the major benchmark for interest rates and financial products, to Dieselgate at Volkswagen.

Visionary or dangerous?

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Just look at yourself

Although narcissism may be what an organisation needs at some point, even productive narcissists are often dangerous. Prof. Fotaki maintains that narcissists are divorced from the consequences of their judgements and actions, whenever these do not affect them directly, and hence, can be cavalier with organisational decision-making. Moreover, they strive at any cost to avoid painful realisations of failure that could tarnish their own image and choose only to listen to information they seek to hear, thus failing to learn from others. Moved by the desire to change the world, leaders can conceive a glorious new vision which may very quickly develop into omnipotent disorders. Indeed, those who want to be leaders in an organisation have to tread a fine line that can wander into narcissism. Understanding how narcissism becomes increasingly prevalent in socially destructive ways is thus important for business leaders as they look to build trust within and outside their company

Beyond business

The proliferation of the dazzling narcissistic leader has seeped not only into businesses and organisations but also into pop-culture and policymaking. Popular media has contributed to the glorification of portrayals of corporate figures as ‘psychopaths’ who unscrupulously and skilfully manoeuvre their way to the highest rungs of the social ladder as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity. However, Prof. Fotaki strongly contests this belief.  “This is a misconception,” she asserts, “which obscures the pervasiveness of narcissism and the mechanisms that enable it to exist in any organisation”.

Another victim claimed by pathological perversions is public policy. Take for instance the financial crisis of 2008. While on one hand, the separation of risk from responsibility could be viewed as creating perverse incentives enabling people to engage in greed – through financial bubbles that were bound to burst –  on the other hand, this separation also permitted policymakers to disengage from the all-to-predictable consequences of such policies. Closer to home, a dramatic shift in public policy has occurred in Europe. Prof. Fotaki, sheds light on European policy where instead of ensuring liveable wages, access to affordable healthcare, public education and a clean environment, there is an increasing pre-occupation with how to unleash the alleged desire of citizens to enact their preferences of how public services should be provided. This is justified by claiming that citizens wish to choose between different providers to ensure best quality. However, at least within healthcare services, this is not borne out of evidence.

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Won’t get fooled again

Moving onto a post-(post-truth) world

With trust now replaced by cynicism, organisations – in the modern swirl of half-baked facts and vociferous opinion on social media – have to fight harder than ever to build trust and legitimacy with their stakeholders. This means rejecting the heroic leadership style so beloved in popular media and developing a new way forward that highlights and dismantles the strong pull of narcissism that post-truth leaders reveal. To survive the post-truth world of claim and counterclaim, leaders have to ensure their organisation is producing an authentic narrative and that its senior staff are displaying values that give credence to those messages. This requires leaders to be transparent and vigilant for emergent narcissistic tendencies in their organisations.

In the post-truth world for business, the temptation to adopt tactics that work is strong. Following narcissistic tendencies to appeal to emotion and developing half-truthful messages will surely bring in the social media followers. But if organisations are to prosper in the long-term, they need to reject this model of leadership and build trust with their stakeholders in a collaborative way that promotes transparency, as well as caring about the consequences actions have for others. It is the only sure method to banish the post-truth world.

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