The Normalization of Mean Leaders: A Recipe for Disaster.
Few people other than venture capitalists see predatory behavior and toxic narcissism as leadership qualities worth investing in.
Many of us are wondering in these glory days of the Kalanicks, Shkrelis and Cagneys how we got here. How did so many mean men get power and maintain it? And how do some of them continue to do so?
I researched these questions for my book Mean Men (released September 5, 2017) and have found the answer to be multifaceted, touching upon the economic and cultural developments of the last few decades:
1. Explosion of Entrepreneurship.
As the American economy has shifted away from manufacturing and toward the information and service sectors, the cost of starting a business and the time it takes to scale up have fallen significantly. At the same time, investors have changed their horizons dramatically, looking to ride innovations for short-term profit and a quick payout. This shift in the investment economy has created a business environment friendly to creative people with entrepreneurial tendencies who would rather pave their own way as soon as possible. Why trudge through the ranks of a large corporation when you can sell a vision that promises to change some element of our world?
Until the tech boom at the end of the 20th century, established corporations offered the vast majority of business world opportunities for young workers. Ambitious people needed to “pay their dues” for at least a decade before launching a disruptive start-up on their own. And, while this gave most an education in how effective organizations should be led, it was not for the impatient. In contrast, someone with the requisite entrepreneurial personality characteristics can now speed through an incubator workshop, develop a business plan, and immediately start pitching it to attract investors. Seemingly unheard of barely two decades ago, one can land millions in angel funding, and the early stages of venture capital investment dollars, to become head of a company before he – or she! – would have graduated from college.
Spend time to learn how to build and work in a team? Nope. That’s just the “soft stuff.” Build up emotional intelligence through seeing it modeled in other contexts and have a chance to receive feedback on one’s interpersonal skills? Just more seemingly irrelevant “soft stuff.”
2. Booming Venture Capitalism
Further fueling tech start-ups in particular was an expanding venture capital industry. With hundreds of millions and then billions of dollars sloshing around in their coffers, investors demanded quick – and high – returns. What’s a VC to do? Get that money working to first stand-up these firms and then put enormous pressure on them to “get big fast.” Scaling up a disruptive enterprise tests the entrepreneurial personalities of the CEOs being told to deliver on the promise of fast growth under considerable pressure.
Unfortunately, a less-noted consequence of this pressure is increased tolerance of toxic behavior in entrepreneurial leaders. As the outsize prioritization of profit at the expense of
healthy organizational cultures has taken over the market, mean men in control of profitable start-ups feel that they can do anything they want to as long as they keep investors happy. They are mostly right. By-and-large, the investor community and those who sit on the boards of these new firms have still not digested data from academic research showing this is not a winning strategy. Often, even in the very short run.
2. Indispensable Creativity
The transition to a knowledge economy has allowed brilliant inventive thinkers to shine as it requires a steady supply of new ideas. The result? Those who can consistently deliver disruptive innovation are often held to a lower behavioral standard because they provide this particular necessary edge.
But there are other necessary “edges.” Founders are also seen as crucial to keeping the integrity of a company’s creative vision alive, so when they exhibit alarming behaviors, few alarm bells start going off. Bad behavior rarely results in any lasting consequences. Often, wildly abusive and unethical – or immoral – behaviors go unchecked because of the perceived need for the Founder’s ability to stay focused on the vision and the growth train roaring down the tracks. “Get big fast” takes precedence over “upstanding corporate citizen building a firm to last.” It may be short-term thinking but it’s short-term investing that’s actually calling the shots.
4. American Hyperindividualism
The mythology of the United States is filled with stories of men with grand ambitions, big dreams, and crazy inventions. We love hearing about an individual overcoming adverse circumstances to do something great. Huck Finn’s radical independence, Ben Franklin’s
bootstrapping from modest means to international Renaissance-man fame, and the humble origins and impressive biographies of the Founding Fathers serve as larger than life symbols of American social mobility and opportunity. However, until the 1960s that prizing of individualism was tempered by strong communal ties among neighbors, church-goers, coworkers and family members.
While that pre-60s social order widely accepted and perpetuated injustice and discrimination against many social groups, it had the temporary advantage of holding in check some very strong individualistic impulses. The counter-culture revolution allowed much social progress in our society by bringing attention to and fighting oppression. But the distrust in authority that it engendered also frayed communal ties and paved the way for the unfettered individualism a vast swath of the business world lives by today. This is the ideal mean man habitat—we are quick to forget their misdeeds and put our faith into them again, because we think this is just how people get things done now.
5. Weak Checks and Balances
Many assume that a corporation’s Board of Directors serves as a natural counterweight to the CEO’s authority. Were the CEO to make dubious choices, we assume the Board can step in and take action. However, the modern CEO -- with gobs of special-classed stock shares -- has the ability to not only select most members of the Board but may now enjoy the luxury of knowing the board can never truly fire him. Mr. Zuckerberg and the Google guys figured this out quickly and, fortunately for both firms, they are rather upstanding leaders. Kalanick thought he was immune but, as we saw, he was so toxic as to bring down the wrath of a particularly strong member of his board. These newer governance configurations can and will compromise a Board’s ability to serve as an effective balance when the CEO engages in behavior harmful to growth and long-term sustainability. Additionally, many CEOs also serve as the board Chair (often referred to as The Royal CEO), reducing the level of oversight and, in turn, the fear of repercussions for any missteps.
6. Normalization of Mean
Mean men in power outside of the start-up world (or other worlds that require the entrepreneurial personality) are similarly quite free to continue to exert power in spite of behavior others find distasteful or harmful. They may be clever enough to avoid any actionable offenses and stick to their guns when confronted with their wrongdoing, bending reality to fit their needs. But, as hard as this may be to hear, we the public that accept their lousy apologies, look past abuse and harassment as long as possible because denial feels more comfortable, and subconsciously admire meanness in our leaders, are also responsible for its proliferation. (Exhibit A: Lance Armstrong.)
When did mean become so normal that we make excuses for it to ourselves when we see stories in the news of yet another man having abused his power? He was just trying to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. Or, when you work at that level, you have to be ruthless. We now take it for granted that our self-interest is a fine compass by which to set upon life’s journey. Popular culture reinforces this with reality TV where competitors talk smack, undermine each other, and form cliques against undesirables in an attempt to ‘survive.’ We relish the spectacle of the crushed singer on a competitive show where a hilariously mean judge gives them a reality check as much as we long for that triumphant moment when the Susan Boyles of the world get to shine. This is the culture we live in. Is it any wonder we don’t raise the alarm when real-life powerful men embody the meanness that the popular culture nourishes within each of us?
What all this adds up to is a recipe for disaster -- a perfect environment for the mean man to take and maintain power in the business world and outside of it. Culturally, economically and politically, we accept mean as the norm and even a necessity. This implies it is also up to all of us to resist this tendency and speak up against damaging actions, especially when they come from the top where they have been allowed to thrive for so long and with so little resistance.
Mark Lipton is a graduate professor of Management at The New School in New York. For over forty years, he has been a trusted adviser to Fortune 500 corporations, think tanks, philanthropies, not-for-profits, and start-ups. His most recent book, Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man, was released in September, 2017.