Why good bosses go bad

The dictator, the narcissist, the plain old corrupt - this whistle-stop tour of where leaders go wrong makes a rollercoaster read, says Rebecca Alexander.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2016

I once worked for a boss, who, in a fit of pique, threw a wastepaper basket at my head. This was deemed entirely acceptable, and there would have been little point going to HR - or 'the organisational police' as Professor Furnham splendidly terms them in this comprehensively researched book (the reader is left to judge whether this is an accolade or an insult). On another occasion this same boss came to physical blows in the boardroom, without apparent harm to his career. Admittedly this was before today's 360-degree peer appraisals and emphasis on corporate governance, and the same incident might have had a different outcome in our enlightened workplaces of 2015.

Except, as Furnham points out, our workplaces are not enlightened at all. Mean, incompetent, self-serving and downright corrupt individuals (FIFA, anyone?) continue to rise to the very top. Furnham argues that management derailment is nearly as common as success, with the paradox that failed leaders have often had successful careers.

And so begins a litany of the many traps leaders can and do fall into, from the psychological to the organisational. Most personality disorders get a look in - psychopathy, narcissism, OCD, paranoia - while a leader's strengths turn to fatal weaknesses as they rise through the ranks. Today's team player becomes tomorrow's risk-averse waverer, the innovative thinker becomes unrealistic, the action-focused go-getter can develop a reckless and dictatorial bent. You get the picture.

But before you blame your boss for all that's wrong with the company, consider the company itself. Furnham insists that just as a fire needs oxygen, bad bosses can't survive without a corporate culture that condones their behaviour, or at the very least turns a blind eye. And many do.

We've all witnessed the corporate implosions of recent years. They've been supplemented by a steady stream of harassment and intimidation court cases, leaving embittered individuals in their wake. A new branch of The Priory hasn't opened in the City of London for nothing.

As a business coach, I hear numerous tales of mistreatment at the hands of bad bosses; of decisions poorly made or not made at all, of self-serving behaviour. On a lesser scale, I see how, under stress, praiseworthy character traits can harden into their unwelcome counterparts: conscientiousness into doggedness, integrity into inflexibility, visionary into over-extended. Yet I also get to sit with some of the leaders themselves, most of whom are trying their hardest in an increasingly pressured environment, and who do not always get it right. Many of them then work even harder to rectify their mistakes.

The book made me begin to wonder whether any individual, ever, could be a good leader, given the overwhelming opportunity for it all to go wrong and for our psychology to trip us up. Furnham's book answers this by showing that most traits operate on a spectrum. Positive personality attributes might be good at a moderate or high level, but can turn bad at the extremes. The answer? Self-awareness, feedback, good governance and supportive structures within the organisation.

There is some fun and fascinating reading on psychopathy and its stealthier companion, the Corporate Psychopath. This is where the book is at its best, and Furnham has some one-liners that will raise a wry smile: 'Most of us will interact with a psychopath every day', or 'It is the articulate, good-looking, educated psychopath that is the most dangerous at work'. Anyone who's watched the fictional Frank Underwood at work in House of Cards will know what this looks like. Narcissism gets a similar treatment, with an exploration of its 'dark' and 'bright' sides. A 'good' narcissist can be a motivating visionary. Yet ultimately their commitment is to themselves rather than their team.

The risk with this sort of compendium of leadership flaws is that the reader starts to identify with many of the conditions outlined. Rather like Googling symptoms of an illness and mistakenly diagnosing oneself with a fatal condition, it's easy to read the rubrics on arrogance, volatility or perfectionism and decide your boss fits into any and all of them. At one point I started to wonder if even I was a borderline narcissist.

Any one of the subjects covered here could make a substantial book in its own right. At times, this feels a bit of a whistle-stop tour, and there are no case studies to bring it to life. However, if you're looking for a careful dissection of how and where leaders can trip up, this book is a rich source. Just watch out for those flying wastepaper baskets.

Rebecca Alexander is founder and business coach at The Coaching Studio. Follow her on Twitter: @_CoachingStudio

Backstabbers and Bullies: How to Cope with the Dark Side of People at Work by Adrian Furnham is published by Bloomsbury at £25

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