Tone at the Top – Fun or Fear? A major societal challenge (extract)

This subject matter is further explored in a Chapter in a Springer book Perspectives on Philosophy of Management and Business Ethics entitled “Dispositional Attribution of Corporate Executives” written during 2014/15 and published in January 2017:

Dispositional Attribution of Corporate Executives

Tone at the Top – Fun or Fear? 

A major societal challenge (extract)

© Julian Martin Clarke

Henry Ford is renowned to have observed that ‘you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do’. While many managers and leaders are adept at “talking the talk”, fewer prove themselves capable of “walking the walk” when their organization and its people face their more difficult challenges.

At the end of the day, other people tend to discover whether their managers and leaders are “authentic”, or not, whether they seem to practice what they preach or there may be a disconnect between their words and deeds.

Many employees do appreciate that when sufficient authentic and admirable values are combined with vision, courage, persistence, encouragement and enthusiasm (amongst many other attributes we will discuss) by leaders of integrity, who display a genuine interest in other people and indeed society itself, who consistently display humility over pride and notably “walk the talk”, the benefits of prioritizing trustworthy relationships and the reputation of the organization can be seen to outweigh the short term “benefits” arising from cutting a few corners.

When skullduggery in its many forms is revealed, as it often can be, the real revelation can be that a short cut may transpire to have actually been the start of a long journey on the winding road towards reputation restoration, with no guarantee that the destination might ever be reached.

What we will describe as “legitimate leadership” provided by “constructive leaders” includes avoiding decisions, actions and practices which, if exposed rather than remain covert, could damage trust and reputation, these invisible yet invaluable cornerstones of longer-term business and organizational success.

How can organizations avoid risking reputational damage, in a mere ten words?

Remembering the Blanchard and Peale phrase “there is no right way to do a wrong thing” when facing decisions and especially dilemmas can prove to be an invaluable source of astute guidance, but perhaps only to those capable of appreciating the associated wisdom. Otherwise apparent short term gain can rapidly turn to longer-term pain.

One of many matters this draft seeks to explore is why some people seem more than capable of both seeking and acting on wise advice, while for others they may even prefer to do the opposite of what other people suggest, no matter how apt the advice; why some thrive on building trustworthy long-term relationships while others are more adept at damaging if not destroying them, irrespective of the consequences; why some people use praise, encouragement and other forms of positivity to build harmonious and collaborative organizations while others thrive on negativity, criticism, discouragement, disharmony, disquiet, disunity, rumor-mongering, competition between supposed colleagues and an environment or culture that can only be described as “combative”.

We will argue this  is both counterintuitive and counterproductive, yet for some reason or reasons appears to be a scenario far too prevalent throughout not only international business but also many other areas of global society, far too numerous to mention but well recognized by those on the receiving end of quite counterproductive intimidatory behaviour, less likely to result in the primary goal of leadership – inspiring a group of people to collaborate towards achieving common goals.

Why is this?

What can we do to diminish the degree of harm and even havoc that those who may have a “personality disorder” – whose “different behaviour, actions, reactions, words and deeds” can be apparent to almost everyone else, except themselves – can inflict on organizational and even national life and the lives of those unfortunate enough to work with or for them?

Surely discouraging, fearful and even distressing environments are a severe indictment on management of such organizations?

Why is this misconstrued by some as being indicative of “strong leadership”, rather than self-satisfying bullying practiced by those who themselves feel better by way of making others feel worse?

Why do some leaders appear to be at their happiest when making others unhappy? 

Is this “normal”? Or acceptable? Indeed what is “normal”?

Why do some leaders appear more encouraging, welcoming, cooperative and conscientious than others?

Why do some leaders also inculcate admirable standards of honesty and integrity amongst their coworkers, while for others such factors seem less important and may even be frowned upon?

Why do some leaders not seem to value and appreciate people and maybe even prefer making them feel unappreciated and disrespected, given that being ultra-competitive and “winning at all costs” can be seen to dominate proceedings throughout the organization, most certainly not a fun place to work?

Why are some workplaces fun (what psychologists describe as “playful”) whereby people genuinely feel inspired to produce their best, enjoy and indeed look forward to coming in to work, sharing ideas and cooperating with coworkers, while others are quite the opposite, perhaps even fearful and fear inducing, with the highlight being going home after an unnecessarily long and arduous day?

Could it be the right or wrong people in charge – “constructive” or “destructive” leaders?

Could it be they have the right “constructive” personality to encourage and maybe even inspire others, or might their very discouraging and even “destructive” nature be due to a “personalty disorder”, making their workplaces far more fearful than fun?

Why do some leaders prefer humiliation to humility?

Why do we, time after time, continue to select and elect the wrong type of  people as leaders, with entirely predictable consequences?

In opening our discussion of questions such as these, please indulge me if I do so by first having some fun with words, taking nothing away from the extremely serious nature of the subject, given that those we will be discussing may well transpire to be amongst the most difficult and challenging people others encounter during their entire lives, if not even dangerous, whether within or outside society’s organizations.

When dealing with the imperiously impulsive and insidiously impatient, the maliciously manipulative, the consistently challenging, the scurrilously secretive, the instinctive initiators of vindictively vengeful vicious vendettas, with enough experience of their typical traits, other people learn that when they can remain cool, calm and collected, that polite persistence pays.

From often bitter experience others learn how to deny disordered people, innately infantile and surreptitious sympathy seekers, with their inevitable inability to forgive and forget, the opportunity to seek revengeful retaliation arising from their fundamentally fractious and mendacious mindset, difficult and demanding demeanor, super special self-esteem, horrible habits, hidden hatreds, heightened haughtiness and narcissistic necessity to prioritize praising themselves but harm, hurt and humiliate others, arising from their clandestinely cruel cognition and covertly cloaked conscience, which with other appallingly absent attributes notably consideration, compassion and kindness, empathy and emotional intelligence, results in their dangerously destructive, deviously dishonest and bizarre blaming behavior including scurrilous scandalmongering and remorseless rendition of false facts, especially when no longer obsequiously obscured and cunningly concealed by their charming confidence and arrogant attitude, nor deviously disguised by the moderate mask of normality they wear much of the time, decidedly delusional and potentially paranoid – until challenged when their disguise drops disclosing their no longer invisible insidiousness, dreadful disloyalty, coldly casual cruelty, seditious sadism, malevolent masochism, easily aroused agitation, awful anger and particularly pernicious penchant for shamelessly stirring up tantalizingly tactless trouble, antagonistically alienating particular people and damaging or destroying relationships, while their terribly thin-skinned visible veneer vanishes to rapidly reveal their craving for control, crafty cunning and other truly treacherous traits, predictably proving what unreliably untrustworthy and disgracefully dangerous people they actually are, dreadfully difficult to deal with due to their frustratingly futile inability to consistently change from their self-centered secrecy and self-serving selfish streak, making them most likely to mercilessly, mendaciously and alarmingly abuse positions of power.

Pride comes before a fall and what a fall those who lacked humility but like humiliating and specialized in ridicule, retaliation and retribution can have when people finally see them for what they are and their incredibly intense efforts to maintain power fail, no matter how many people they threaten during their downfall.

As Oscar Wilde observed, “some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go”.

It is far better and indeed healthier for others, perhaps in mind and body, that such people be removed from positions of influence before the damage they inflict becomes irreparable. Even after the organizations start failing and collapse, with many people’s lives within and beyond adversely affected, their gargantuan self-belief and inability to see beyond their own perspective can convince them that they actually did nothing wrong.

Such scenarios makes it imperative that such fundamentally and incredibly irresponsible people as a matter of priority be prevented from attaining positions of responsibility, as in such instances prevention is far preferable to cure, improbable as this may be.

Yet somehow global society can seem to mindlessly mistake their cocky confidence, arrogant attributes and reckless ruthlessness for “leadership ability”, when their tough traits are more likely to prevent people from trusting or respecting such perniciously prickly people and may even contribute to their deeply disliking these deficient delinquents and tricky troublemakers, while failing to follow the erroneous example they seditiously set.

For many years I thought the reason for such behavior was “pride” (and of course it is) but now that I believe traits such as these may be indicative of a deeper malaise in the mind of those more likely to be troublemaker than peacemaker, I believe I have a responsibility to share what I have learned with other people so you too can appreciate how best to minimize the hefty havoc and degree of destruction such people can craftily create, often managing to blame others for the disruption and chaos, with too few realizing who the real culprits actually are due to the “web of deceit” they wickedly weave.

The fact that some lacking in the emotions which most other people possess have been shown to so readily (and perhaps unwittingly) engage in high levels of pathological lying and deceit, cunning manipulation and egocentric, callous and impulsive behavior, characterized by a lack of responsibility, empathy and remorse, are also well versed in using their charm, confidence and arrogance to hide their truer traits even from experienced psychiatrists and psychologists has many implications for the organizations, entities and structures of global society.

Despite being extremely fortunate to have worked with many superb managers and leaders during mt own career who absolutely exemplified integrity and are admired and appreciated by those fortunate to work with or for them, strangely (or not) I have often learned more from working with managers and leaders who would never be considered as role models.

I often explain to business students that “I have learned more about management from seeing it done badly then done the opposite than from seeing it done well”. Yet extraordinarily (or not) the less admirable and least appreciated managerial characteristics arise time and time and time again and seem to be totally independent of industry sector, geographic location, language and even size and nature of organization

Having also been fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to teach business for over 30 years, irrespective of the age or level of experience of the students, after a short while with a new class one of my favorite questions has always been:

What is the common denominator in every business in the world?”

This can lead to five or ten minutes of lively debate with much financial jargon and many business school terms being volunteered before someone (usually a girl) replies with the answer sought: “people!”

This usually results in a discussion on management and leadership with integrity, leading to a further question:

How many of you have actually met a corporation?”

The initial response is often silence before someone requests the question be repeated. No-one raises their hand because no-one present has actually met a corporation – only the people employed by it who may represent it admirably or unethically and do it a disservice. The message is clear that an organization may be a separate legal entity, but its policies, practices and decisions are all undertaken by people, whose differences in motivation, personality and character produce such a mix of widely different corporate cultures.

Consequently in this draft we will consider why some leaders appear to be more conscientious than others and inculcate admirable standards of integrity and unity amongst their colleagues, while for others “winning at all costs” and “getting their own way” dominates proceedings, due to the personal construct or “dispositional attribution” of leaders: their behavioral traits and internal characteristics as opposed to the situational or external influences which arise from environment or culture.

Amongst the many related matters we will explore is why some people seem to entirely naturally include, encourage and inspire while others appear to innately exclude, discourage and demotivate those fortunate or unfortunate to work with or for people who are either fundamentally agreeable or disagreeable, tactful and diplomatic or rude and crude, astute or impulsive, loyal or disloyal and constructive or destructive, perhaps even kind or cruel, being either peacemakers building harmony or troublemakers thriving on conflict.

The “basic recipe” for management of organizations and especially their people, when analyzed and considered is in many respects far from complex and can indeed appear to be “basic common-sense.”

Anyone can read a “basic recipe” from a cookbook, but not everyone can follow the tried-and-tested instructions to combine all the ingredients into a successful end product.

Management of many organizations, not just businesses, can find it equally difficult to put many of these “basic common-sense” managerial factors into practice in their day-to-day dealings, especially with coworkers.

Why might this be? This is one of the more important matters this draft will consider.

For starters, or entrée, some may even be incapable of “following instructions”, which in an organizational context can pose significant challenges.

It is not just that common sense doesn’t appear to be as common as it might be, something this draft considers by way of discussing behavioral biases or cognitive biases, as these can help explain why “doing the right or sensible thing” can be more problematic than might be imagined, even for entirely normal, decent and kind-hearted people. We all form habits and find it difficult to change from “the way we have always done things” which contributes to the difficulty of introducing “change” to organizations, the subject of the first article I (somewhat reluctantly) wrote about business and businesspeople way back in 1997.

Another reason appears to be because self-interest is such an integral part of human nature and a core aspect of people’s psychology that considering the interests of others as well as oneself, such a key aspect of managing people, can pose a great challenge for too many tasked with responsibility for others.

While even the most experienced and highly regarded chefs can be capable of reading, assimilating and experimenting with a new recipe, especially those designed by their most lauded peers, not all business people are capable of seeking advice from others, let alone acting on it. Are they too proud? Or could the reason be due to something more fundamentally deeper?

Could you imagine the most proud, vain, conceited or egotistical businessperson reading a Managerial or Leadership book for any genuine purpose other than affirming their own (undoubted) brilliance and confirming (at least in their mind, if few others) how vastly superior they are to everyone else?

For some strange reason it only took me thirty tears in industry to properly understand, those most likely to be critical of other people can themselves seem to be less capable of accepting criticism, or anything that they may consider to resemble any form of critique, even if none was intended or indeed there was no criticism at all. Those who appear strong and thick-skinned can actually transpire to be weak and thin-skinned, over-reacting to any form of perceived rebuke.

Those who need to seek and even demand praise, can seem to be those for whom praising and encouraging others can pose an insidiously insurmountable challenge.

Those who seem to spend their lives telling others what to do and who give advice even on areas outside their fields of expertise, can seem to be those least capable of seeking opinions from or acting on the advice of others. They may even prefer to do quite the opposite of what others ask, want or need them to do, not unlike little children needing to “get their own way” and “throwing a tantrum” when they don’t.

Such people may believe themselves to be strong and mature, but in reality they can be weak and childlike, being so emotionally impoverished that they need to damage the emotions of others. Yet (incredibly) they manage and lead many types of organizations throughout global society.

Self-centered leaders insufficiently appreciate that people prefer peacemakers to troublemakers, that they actually pity those who feel the necessity to create conflict and disharmony in lieu of co-operation and harmony, whose self-esteem is such that they can only see things from their own perspective and act accordingly, prioritizing their self-interest to the detriment of others.

In time other people recognize the consistency of their apparent inconsistency and learn to adapt their own behavior to suit their peculiarities and ultimately their very predictability, with the goal being to diminish or deny them the varying degrees of trouble and strife they insatiably seek.

Business, no matter how serious, should be capable of being conducted in a pleasant and possibly even a fun manner, as when people are relaxed and enjoying each other’s company they seem to be more capable of collectively and collaboratively coming up with the ideas to solve and overcome what may have initially have seemed to have been intractable problems. My experience has been that this can be especially true when considering dilemmas, well described as “situations seemingly beyond satisfactory resolution”. Finding innovative solutions though may never happen if those present feel that their sole contribution is to concur with the opinions of their most senior peers, no matter how dubious or inappropriate these may be.

Legitimate” managers and leaders seek all possible opinions especially those which differ from the “status quo” and “how we do things”. Illegitimate leaders, especially those who like hearing themselves talking, insufficiently seek the opinions of others and may even “put them down” for attempting to be creative and think “out of the box”, seeing as it is they who have the monopoly on good ideas and the role of their colleagues is to “clap them on the back” even for suggestions that they know may even make the situation worse. When people feel their ideas and opinions will not receive an appreciative and supportive welcome and will not result in a discussion towards some form of successful outcome, perhaps involving compromises and changes in direction, why bother having a management team at all?

If people are “on edge” and too nervous to speak what may be crossing their mind, this is the fault of those who are supposed to be managing them to “contribute the most|” and “produce their best”, which seldom happens when the culture is based on fear and blame.

In contrast when the culture is open and inclusive, warm and welcoming, even dare I suggest fun, people do feel inspired to contribute their best and to encourage their colleagues to do the same.

Which type of organization is most likely to make more rapid progress, especially when facing challenging times, the entity more typified by fun or fear?

Ireland has many attractions as a business location, including offering a pro-business environment, ready access to the EU market and relatively low corporate taxes, a long standing policy which preceded EEC membership by 17 years. Export Sales Relief, which exempted profits derived from exports from corporation tax, was one of the initial innovations introduced to attract “foreign direct investment” in 1956. At that time Ireland predominantly farmed high quality agricultural products (thanks to luscious green fields and the occasional drop of rain, called a “soft day”), which it still does and lacked an industrial base, which it now most certainly does not. Indeed a 1956 parliamentarian commented that ‘there is nothing in this Bill about which to get excited’. Over sixty years later the Irish, well capable of seeing the lighter side of life, remain equally bemused that others can still find their corporate tax policies a matter for excitement.i

In addition to these factors and notably a well educated, creative, English speaking workforce, another of the myriad of reasons why many international firms continue to choose to locate and develop in Ireland is the rarely cited “fun factor”. People from other nations and cultures find the Irish not only creative (described in Asia as the ability of the Irish “to think around corners”) and industrious, but also easy to get along with. Their naturally friendly and casual demeanor, sense of humor, quick wit, interest in others and ability to laugh at themselves has exported well and resulted in many multinational corporations enjoying working both with the Irish overseas and over a thousand such firms choosing to locate in Ireland.

But not even in fun-loving Ireland could all workplaces be described as fun places to work, whereby a sense of humor would be seen as an accepted and integral part of the daily routine. Fortunately many workplace cultures are undoubtedly pleasant, welcoming, encouraging and fun places to work, in which people enjoy making the best contribution they can and feel their efforts are appreciated. Yet other other workplaces in Ireland and elsewhere can also be very unwelcoming, discouraging, fearful and even challenging places to work.

Is it not common sense that demotivated and uninspired employees are unlikely to want to contribute their best, with the highlight of their working day perhaps being going home, sometimes even counting the hours and minutes before they can leave such inhospitable environments, not just at the end of the day but also permanently as they take their talents and enthusiasm elsewhere instead, to environments where their efforts are more likely to be appreciated.


Society needs the kind of leaders who can sense the temperature of the moment and know when best to provide either overt orchestra style leadership or appreciate, like the more subtle guidance of a jazz band or Irish music session along the right path, that just being a member of the team, using a few well chosen words and setting a good example for others to follow may be the most apt way of calmly and most productively dealing with situations.

Irrespective of size or type of organization or nature of their specific leadership styles, entities in society led by selfless leaders often appear to be singing off the same hymn-sheet and to be playing to the same tune.

Self-centered leaders however do not appear to appreciate the benefits arising from unity and harmony. Their sheet music, like their disordered and often child-like minds, not only differs from the rest of the band but, because they refuse to share their sheet music with others, not unlike a child refusing to let others play with its toys, thrive on confusion and everyone playing to quite different tunes, quite the opposite of what is required of a leader.

Ultimately they are only capable of being a one-man band, their main talent being that of blowing their own trump-et.

No matter how laudable some of their other talents may be, society and its organizations and entities ultimately suffers from appointing leaders with an insatiable personal need to be seen to be the hero or heroine, who proactively seek praise when unwarranted and deflect blame for their many failings to others, eventually driving their musicians to seek greater harmony by leaving for pastures new, in effect allowing their rivals to avail of their talents because of the myopia, intransigence and intimidation practiced by the illegitimacy of their self-centered leadership.

Yet we continue to elect such people to leadership positions, failing to see they are more likely to lead to the acrimonious split of band members, who may even choose to set up their own band in direct competition, leading to even more departures from the original grouping.

How short-sighted can they be?

While “selfish, difficult and proud” does explain their approach to situations and much of their behavior, “pride” does however appear to be too shallow an explanation for their peculiar mix of personal attributes.

The most consistently illegitimate behavior in business is perhaps more likely to be perpetrated by those whose minds may fundamentally differ from those of legitimate people, those lacking a cruel or self-centered streak who would not willingly set out to damage other people nor consciously mislead them.

It is such fundamentally dishonest and self-centered behavior which this draft associates with “illegitimate leaders”, although whether they consciously or unconsciously engage in behavior which manipulates and misleads others will be open to interpretation.

What is possible to suggest from experience with many people with more innately illegitimate minds is that they do seem to primarily or exclusively pursue their self-interest, with this draft proposing that this may not be a conscious decision, rather their actual state of mind, so those who expect them to seriously consider the welfare of other people, the interests of the organization they lead or to engage in what others may experience as fairplay or moral reasoning may be disappointed.

Such fundamentally damaging traits should disqualify them from being considered for business leadership. However, one of the problems the world faces is that they can be quite well hidden throughout society, as they inhabit a rather different world from everyone else, with a mindset that can literally be incredible, meaning hard for others to believe.

Furthermore they can be consummate actors, well versed at wearing a “mask of normality” to disguise their truer, colder, darker and more covert invisible aspects. As many people are unaware what behavioral traits to look for, this draft aims to open the door to a better recognition of some of their more insidious behavior and why ethics, morals and perhaps even anything to do with other people at all may just not be on their personal radar.

Yet because of their other, more overt and visible traits, often including considerable talent, intellect, intelligence, charm and verbal prowess, society continues to elect them to leadership positions, unaware that their more invisible traits are more disposed to causing harm than doing good.

When easily distractable racehorses are required to wear blinkers, they may not actually be blinkered at all. Rather they are forced to look forward while ignoring distractions, with the purpose being to move as expeditiously as possible, sometimes jumping over a variety of obstacles. If such a garment could be designed for illegitimate leaders it could prove to be very beneficial because they actually may be innately blinkered, as looking out for and prioritizing any interests other than their own can seem to pose them a considerable challenge.

What many organizations may inadequately appreciate is that their greatest obstacle to harmonious progress could actually be their own leaders, due to their blinkered brains and truly illicit and illegitimate mindsets.

Perhaps the most apt analogy is that illegitimate leaders would seem to wear spectacles, but not normally manufactured ones with a focus on seeing the world they inhabit more clearly, which may well be impossible.

Rather they wear mirror spectacles (or contact lenses), with a dual purpose, one which prevents others from seeing what may be going on in the mind behind them. But these are not normal mirror glasses, with the mirror on the outside of the glass, they serve a further and more alarming purpose. Rather they are specially designed and manufactured with the mirror on the inside of the glass, so when they look out all they see is themselves and their insatiably personal goals and ambitions, prioritizing which is perhaps their singularly most important goal in life, perhaps oblivious to any other concerns, most certainly not what others may describe as morality or ethics. Their spectacles, like their minds, appear to be focused only on themselves.

The challenge for others is that no glasses have yet been made capable of facilitating revealing who they actually are, one of the ambitions of this draft. However there are ways that the door into their real mindset can be gradually opened. Given their penchant for hiding their truer state behind a “mask of normality”, psychologists suggest that they will not always reveal themselves by way of conspicuous acts of demonstrably unethical or visibly harmful behavior, rather by way of many minor acts of subtle cruelty.

To which this draft may add that they like getting their own way, quite a lot, indeed if they can, all the time in almost every situation. Appreciating this may also open the door into their mind a little wider, as well as allowing those who have to deal with them figure out how best to do so, which this draft also discusses.

US psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed that people personally develop through six stages and three progressive levels of moral reasoning, with perhaps those most suitable for leadership being well capable of making moral choices from a genuine interest in others and respect for laws which, if unjust, may need changing (“social contract orientation”), who can also generalize moral principles beyond their own specific interests (“universal ethical principles”). Such people could be described as being principled and having a social conscience, making them appropriate for leadership roles in society.

However some adults do not appear to be capable of reasoning beyond the second “pre-conventional” level which prioritizes achieving their own desires. Alarmingly, Kohlberg most associated this “self-interest orientation” with primary school children.

If some such unconventional people leading organizations may be incapable of reasoning morally beyond the stage associated with primary school children, the implications for society and the lives of people they encounter including in the workplace could be extremely serious.

When “what’s in it for me?” is combined with “getting my own way” and “winning at all costs” as primary motivators, is this really that different from what also motivates many primary school children?

So perhaps recognizing some such adults to be emotional five year olds, primarily concerned with “getting their own way”, like some children not wanting to share their toys, may help others decide how best to respond to their sometimes apparently childlike or infantile behavior

While this may be a surprise for many, it will not be for some psychologists and sociologists. William and Joan McCord observed in 1964 that some challenging people can be“like an infant, absorbed in his own needs, vehemently demanding satiation.” (McCord & McCord, 1964)ii

Emeritus professor of psychology Robert D Hare confirmed this observation: “At an early age most children have already begun to postpone pleasure, compromising with restrictions in the environment. A parent can generally use a promise to put off satisfying a two-year-old’s desires, at least temporarily, but [some] never seem to learn this lesson – they do not modify their desires; they ignore the needs of others.” (Hare, 1993) iii

One major challenge facing not only business but also society is to identify the truer traits of such extraordinarily self-centered people and deny them positions involving influence or power or, better still, do not employ them in the first place, no matter how suitable they may otherwise appear.

Some people can appear to be very moody, with irregular emotional responses apparently out of proportion to the situation. They can display severe mood swings, ups and downs, intense reactions, strong emotions from laughter to anger or crying which may seem rapid, exaggerated and disproportionate to the circumstances, described by psychologists as “emotional lability”.

Behavior and emotional responses may appear to others to be easily triggered, impulsive, unstable and potentially even dangerous and most certainly inappropriate to the circumstances. Their behavior may not appear to be related to the situation at hand, nor apparently to their actual emotional state, perhaps being involuntary displays of mood, which means those working with them may urgently need to learn how to “walk on eggshells” and adapt how they deal with their emotional incontinence.

The key managerial issue could be that those who employ or promote people to senior positions may be wiser to avoid people who seem to have a disconnect between how they convey and how they manage their emotions.

Mood lability has been described as “an emotional response that is irregular or out of proportion to the situation at hand, associated with severe mood swings, intense reactions & dramatic changes in opinions and feelings. Mood lability is often evidenced by destructive or harmful behaviors Those actions can include angry tantrums or screaming, destroying objects, aggression or violence towards others and self-harm. The responses can occur seemingly out of nowhere, triggered in seconds. Mood lability is present in people with various mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and BPD.”

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition that causes people to have difficulty regulating their emotions. The primary symptoms of the condition are dramatic mood swings, impulsive behaviors, poor self-esteem and persistent difficulties in personal and professional relationships. People dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder often experience a different perception of reality.”

Because of how disruptive mood lability can be, it can inhibit daily life and functioning. This may include harming interpersonal relationships and careers. Those with BPD experience unstable emotions and frequent mood swings. Emotions are easily triggered and are typically inappropriate or disproportionate to the circumstances. People with BPD may display symptoms of intense anxiety, even seeing things in a distorted light…” “Particularly in the case of mood lability in people with BPD, the effects of the outbursts can last much longer than in other people. That’s because those with BPD tend to have heightened emotional states, to begin with. This longer-lasting effect can make managing mood lability all the more difficult. The heavy mood swings associated with mood lability and BPD can be extremely disruptive. iv

The temptation when they behave badly towards people can be to respond in a similar vein. This though is often just what they want, as they can thrive on conflict and actively seek it. Who “wins” when the peacemaker they treat disrespectfully becomes angry with them? The troublemaker.

Those familiar with their behavior realize that instead of responding in the manner they are seeking, they should do quite the opposite. Staying calm and either quietly walking away or just saying nothing at all can be the most appropriate response and, with practice, this can be both very achievable and extremely effective. The more provocative they become, the quieter the response should be. This may pose them a far greater challenge than an overtly antagonistic response.

Indeed those with BPD and/or elements of the other Cluster B Personality Disorders including narcissistic (NPD) can thrive on conflict when their faces can be seen to almost light up with excitement when a confrontation develops. Those they argue with seldom ever get to feel they won the argument, no matter how “right” they believe themselves to be, so over time learn not to bother getting into an argument at all, no matter how wrong they believe the instigator of the potential confrontation to be.

Those with the most astute Emotional Intelligence will realize that while they respond in a war-like manner to any form of provocation and seek this response from others to their own provocation, disturbing harmony at any opportunity, there is one response in particular which they can be incapable of responding to – kindness.

When people are kind to them their face can be expressionless, unusually unsure of themselves. In time other people learn that when they can return any type of cruelty with any form of kindness, the peacemaker prevails over the troublemaker and this can be one of life’s most extraordinarily powerful feelings. When their attempts to turn harmony into disharmony fail, the peacemaker wins, denying them two of the things they most crave – troublemaking and winning.

While they thrive on confrontation and other forms of both subtle and overt cruelty, they not only struggle to be kind but can also appear not to know how to respond when other people are kind to them. So extraordinary as it may sound, responding to their intimidatory and confrontational behavior with tact, patience and kindness can be an extremely effective policy. This though may take a great deal of what they seem to lack most – self-control.

This degree of self-discipline is difficult but not unachievable. Perhaps given his reputation as a peacemaker it is appropriate that Francis of Assisi described Conquering Oneself to this extent as Perfect Joy:

When people can willingly endure sufferings, insults, humiliations and hardships and endure cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled and without complaining, while reflecting humbly and charitably when others speak against them, Perfect Joy is there.”

With practice such restraint can not only produce a semblance of harmony in the midst of potential disharmony, but can also be an exceptionally satisfying experience, especially when the peacemaker turns the table on the troublemaker by remaining cool, calm and collected in perhaps quite trying circumstances.

Of course rather than others having to adapt their own behavior significantly to deny such innate troublemakers the conflict they seem to need to create, it would be far easier and preferable if they were denied the opportunity in the first place, by either not employing such fundamentally irresponsible people or not appointing them to any position of responsibility whatsoever and certainly not one involving responsibility for other people.

Those who employ or promote people with “emotional lability” believing they will be a great asset for the organization may soon discover they could become one of its greatest liabilities.

English playwright and Oscar winning screenwriter Robert Oxton Bolton asserted that: “a belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses, but an idea that possesses the mind”. v

For life’s most selfish, difficult, proud and self-centered people, who operate both overtly and covertly at all levels and in all sectors of society, self-interest does not appear to be a conscious decision, one of a number of options to be rationally and morally reasoned and deliberated over. Rather their extraordinary and innate level of self-belief and necessity to personally prevail, irrespective of the situation and severity of the consequences for others, would appear to possess their persona to such a degree that self-interest becomes their prevailing state of mind.

Even with spouses and children giving them the appearance of “normality”, many of society’s most challenging people lack any real emotional attachments with anyone else, are incapable of experiencing concern for others and with their innate and exclusive focus being on themselves simply do not care about the welfare of other people.

Their profound lack of empathy, even if mostly masked by their apparent confidence and charm, can prevent them from sharing in the emotions of others. Together with their lack of guilt and remorse for wrongdoing, this facilitates their behaving in a cold, calculated and self-centered manner which, at its worst, others may judge to be ruthless.

Those trying to undertake detailed research into what may really be happening in the mind of some of society’s most challenging people may eventually realize that they may not actually engage in significant rational or irrational deliberation on many matters at all.

IPG” may be the initials of a variety of business organizations, but what appears to motivate them most also appears to be what may be happening inside their mind, capable of being termed an “IPG goal” of achieving instantaneous personal gratification.”

Despite the possibility of their more furtive actions being exposed, this risk does not seem to deter some individuals and groups from engaging in actions and behavior which could be extremely damaging to other people and both their and their organizations’ reputation, should the matter be revealed.

Could this be because they are so confident that they believe themselves to be “invulnerable” and hence can engage in many forms of illegitimate behavior?

Could this be because some cannot adequately experience fear and risky situations are not experienced any differently in their minds from more routine matters?

Could some people really not be capable of experiencing life’s warmer and more positive emotions and even take pleasure in bringing out the worst, the most negative emotions, in even the best of people?

Could some people really be so innately focussed on themselves and satisfying their own desires that they may be incapable of showing any interest in any other people including their own family members other than doing so as pure pretense?

Could society really continue to appoint such innately difficult people with a mindset which differs significantly from most others to leadership positions?

These (rhetorical questions) are all matters this draft will consider.

Appearing to be oblivious to the downside risk associated with hazardous situations and the potentially serious or even catastrophic implications for both other people and their own organization which may arise from their decisions and actions, does not spread confidence that when crunch comes to crunch they will prioritize any factor other than their self-interest, their own own pride and their extraordinary sense of infallibility, which extraordinarily they can maintain even following the collapse of the entity they were erroneously chosen to mis-lead.

The repercussions and reverberations for interpersonal and even international relationships in society could be serious, potentially dramatic or even catastrophic. The “world order” and even “world peace” could particularly be at risk when people such as these achieve their primary personal goal of “getting to the top” and lead not only organizations but even nations.

Of course it would be better still if business and society saw through them and did not elect such innately difficult, challenging and self-centered people to leadership positions.

One of the ambitions of this draft is that we no longer continue to make such mistakes. How? By identifying and unmasking such “selfish, difficult and proud” people.

Is this really possible without ourselves studying clinical psychology?

Of course! Because no matter how hard they try to portray themselves as being “normal”, they actually help us identify their varying abnormalities because, especially when they are challenged, they give themselves away because of their very inability to change their own behavior

However a significant problem is that many people do not know what behavior to look for in trying to identify such people for what they may actually be – people with such a disordered mind they could have a Personality Disorder, perhaps one of society’s best kept secrets.

That is why instead of writing mini case studies or vignettes based on many challenging experiences with such people, I have tried to describe as many of the behavioral traits common to these experiences, so you can identify these in the people you know and work with or for so you can adapt your own behavior accordingly, something they are quite poor at doing themselves.

I hope the many related behavioral traits I have compiled from too many experiences with such “selfish, difficult and proud” people may reveal them to be far more than just that, perhaps a deeper malaise and allow you to observe these traits in people BEFORE you promote them or, even better still, before you even hire them in the first place, irrespective of their other, better qualities.

Furthermore, I earnestly hope that identifying them as the difficult and challenging people they really are may help you and your friends and family avoid such people as best you can, in any walk of life.

These combative people, who seem to take pleasure in being unkind and some even cruel, would seem to have been around for ever, perhaps being responsible for many troubles in society throughout history, potentially both causing and then perpetuating wars, given their inability to be the “peacemaker”.

Eventually their misuse of power can result in their downfall with the old adage “those who abuse power, lose power” very apt. But this may take some time and probably after they have left a trail of devastation, given the destructive impact they can have on other people’s lives.

But this need not be the case, only if others fail to recognize the behavioral traits and respond in the confrontational manner they desire. Over time they will learn that the best response is to deny them the trouble they seek and not rise to the traps they set, often on a daily basis.

When others look upon them as being troublemakers, they will identify that the best response is to be the peacemaker. When conscientious colleagues recognize some of these behavioral traits and identify them for what they really are, then do the opposite of what they want, including remaining calm when they seek to stir up dissent, they will be denied the many mini-victories they crave.

While many people “succeed” by building trusting relationships, others prefer to damage relationships and trust, both perhaps inconsequential to them given that their primary focus is on themselves. Demotivating others by way of belittling them seems to give them a great “kick” in life, perhaps enhancing their self-belief that no-one else compares with their own undoubted brilliance (at least in their opinion, if few others).

While many leaders take pleasure in encouraging others and can inspire them to produce their best by way of praising their achievements (no matter how modest) and helping them believe in their own abilities, self-centered leaders can seem to derive a morbid satisfaction from putting others down and engaging in outright discouragement. This can include refraining from praising achievements and finding opportunities for criticism even following considerable accomplishments. At the end of the day they discourage people from producing their best and may even want to bring out the worst in them as they try to turn people against each other rather than engender co-operation and teamwork.

These and many other factors we will discuss are precisely the opposite situations and outcomes expected from those who manage and lead organizations, situations which too many workers often have no option but to accept rather than try to change, given the considerable personal retribution they face from self-centered people who have few qualms about humiliating and even wanting to “destroy” coworkers who in some way dissatisfy them, even when they may be doing the right thing by their organization and the majority of its people.

People who very occasionally display some of these challenging traits may be entirely normal and just be responding to pressure. It is when these traits recur frequently and can with familiarity be predicted that other people may have reason to be anxious.

Those concerned by their behavior may find it worthwhile to catalogue this and discuss what they have observed with qualified professionals. While some difficult people may successfully mask their true nature, they can find it harder to alter their behavior, especially when they are challenged.

People will need to tread very carefully in dealing with them, bearing in mind that one of the first reactions of the self-centered personality may be to “attack their accuser”, perhaps becoming enraged and denying the undeniable, possibly inventing fictitious situations and conversations while convincing others of their accuracy, exaggerating achievements and denigrating almost everyone else, like a rat cornered.

They will invent stories about other people and have no problem spreading entirely false and malicious rumors about those they choose to damage and try to destroy, sometimes for quite innocuous reasons.

The victims of their character assassination may be unaware about the “distortion campaign” they may have been engaging in for some time until they gradually begin to piece together little pieces of information like a jigsaw puzzle, in due course perhaps (but not always) discovering their true depths of depravity and the degree to which they will do anything in their power to alienate those they perceive to be “foes” from other people. At the end of the day they excel at damaging not building both relationships and trust.

They will lie, deceive and manipulate in order to achieve their goals with little or no concern for who else may be adversely affected. When caught in a lie they will just change their story, as if nothing happened, or accuse the other person of being the liar. In due course other people may begin to doubt their own recollection of events so need to keep their own notes and records.

Salient advice is to only believe their assertions when they can be corroborated by impartial third parties or documentary evidence. When their imaginations appear to be running riot, it is important to realize that in their mind these could well be facts not fiction.

It will take very little for them to be extremely disloyal to even their most loyal followers as the only loyalty they seem to be capable of is to themselves.

They will seek the support of the most senior people people in the organization, who they may have been grooming for this purpose for some time, often by way of lauding themselves while belittling their own managers, to the extent that people no longer know whom to believe.

No matter how well they manage to disguise their true inner coldness, eventually their maltreatment of others, allied to the degree of lies, deceit, manipulation and character assassination of others they engage in does become noticed by their people. No matter how subtle they try to be (not always a strength of theirs) eventually the absolute degree of their self-centeredness can no longer be masked by their charm. Ultimately their attempts to ingratiate themselves with those in more senior positions falls flat when both their self-praise and critique of others is seen for what it actually is.

No matter how well they try to convince others that they are actually good people, those who really know them well appreciate how far from the truth this can be.

No longer should those who bring out the worst in other people and who derive their own happiness from damaging that of others, ever be given responsibility for managing or leading other people, given their inability to constructively manage their own emotions let alone those of others.

Yet somehow they still manage to “pull the wool over the eyes” of those responsible for both hiring and promotion in organizations, with those genuinely smart people with a keen eye for human nature who “see through” them just as likely to be disbelieved should they share their concerns, partly because, no matter how much convincing evidence is presented to them, those in positions of responsibility do not quite know what signs to look for, nor how irresponsible and indeed dangerous such charming liars can be.

This is especially so when they take “getting their own way” to such extreme lengths that “winning at all costs” damages not only other people but the organization or entity which employs them.

For the sake of the entity itself, it will become critically important to evaluate whether they may be contributing more good or doing more harm to the organization, it’s own people, it’s culture and any other stakeholders, before considering which course of action will be most likely to protect others from their behavior and safeguard the longer term integrity and reputation of the organization

Talking the talk is no substitute for actually being capable of walking the walk. Indeed in their case there may be a deep disconnect between their talk and their deeds.

As Mark Twain said:

It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

THAT is one of the reasons why a draft such as this is required – to reveal many of the “behavioral traits” which such cold, cruel and ruthless people can typically display, so people may identify them, unmask them and deny them the power throughout society which they crave but can only abuse.

Only then will coworkers, many other organizational “stakeholders”, as well as friends, family members and society at large be that little bit safer.

Unfortunately, like elsewhere in life, some self-centered leaders don’t appear to learn their own lessons from their past mistakes and keep behaving in the manner which prioritizes their ego and self-interest and disrespects others, failing to appreciate how damaging this can be both to individual and group morale and overall corporate culture.

They may believe themselves to be strong and mature, but in reality they are weak and childlike, being so emotionally impoverished that they need to damage the emotions of others. In time people may begin to notice what may be their true inner coldness and suspect that they may be lacking in the warmer and kinder emotions which most people possess.

When leaders find it impossible to praise or encourage others or admit to failings, a “blame culture” can develop which can be a significant barrier to progress, personal and organizational People find it difficult to trust such leaders and ‘fiefdoms’ and ‘silos’ can be particularly evident in their organizations

Some self-centered people who can rapidly rise through managerial ranks just find it impossible to consider the needs of colleagues. Even if they could, they lack the basic sympathy to engage successfully with others. Pride and arrogance comes more naturally than empathy and humility.

With some people seeming to derive pleasure from diminishing the confidence and harming the emotions of others, society nevertheless continues to elect such people to managerial and even leadership positions.

Somehow we consistently mistake outwardly dynamic displays of confidence and talk of integrity for strength of character and intimidatory traits for strength of leadership, due to a leadership fallacy which mistakenly considers strength of personality and intimidatory tactics to be indicative of strength of character and leadership ability, rather than the probable absence of both.

Being more innately motivated by “getting their own way” and “winning at all costs”, some can be unconcerned about the deleterious impact their decisions and behavior can have on the emotions of others or may even derive personal pleasure from hurting and even damaging the emotions of others.

And yet we continue to elect highly competitive people, whose instincts do not seem to want to inspire harmony and co-operation to managerial and leadership roles in the organizations and entities of our societies, no matter the geographical and cultural arena, when their self-centeredness in due course dominates proceedings both within and outside the organization

TAKERS being fundamentally self-centered people “more interested in themselves than others”, more likely to abuse power and use it to benefit and promote themselves, being most undeserving of being afforded the opportunity to misuse power and most deserving of losing it, lacking emotional intelligence amongst other deficiencies of character, society most fervently needs to be protected from by denying them access to any seniority of position.

GIVERS” being fundamentally selfless people “more interested in others than themselves”, who do not actively seek power and possess the wisdom and empathy to use it astutely for the benefit of others, may perhaps be the most deserving of being granted authority and can be trusted with positions of responsibility in society.

Perhaps that is why Plato believed that those who do not desire power are fit to hold it.

Instead society needs leaders capable of accepting responsibility for the faults of those they lead, who deflect warranted praise to the endeavors of their colleagues, rather than those who seek praise when unwarranted and deflect blame for their many failings to others.

Those who consider and select people for senior positions need to better associate selfish, difficult, proud, challenging, intimidatory and perhaps contrary traits with irresponsible and self-centered leadership and deny such people the power they crave, but can inevitably misuse and abuse, while also becoming more appreciative of more selfless, co-operative, modest and agreeable attributes, including genuine kindness and bona fide charisma, while increasingly associating such traits with responsible and selfless leadership.

These and many other matters led to the initial definition of a “Disordered Leader” I proposed for discussion and refinement at the International Vincentian Business Ethics Conference held in Dublin in October 2019:

“Someone trusted with supervisory, managerial or leadership responsibilities who, due to what may be indicative of a mental and/or personality disorder(s), could be considered to be incapable of consistently responsible, trustworthy, harmonious, prosocial and accountable management or leadership with integrity, including prioritising the interests of stakeholders other than themselves, especially when this may impede satisfying their self-interest.”

At that US IVBEC business ethics conference I also proposed that the steps the rest of society needs to take to protect itself from such leaders include:

1. Identify these abnormal people, by way of their own “Destructive Leadership” behaviour, as being different from the norm,
2. Stop them achieving positions of influence & responsibility throughout global society, or if already in situ
3. Learn how to behave differently towards them (“denying narcissistic supply”),
4. Adapt to (not) respond to their sometimes extraordinary actions & reactions (evident due to their “maladaptive” inflexibility), to
5. Minimise the damage & havoc they will inevitably create and preferably replace them with far more responsible people, who do meet the “Constructive Leadership” criteria, knowing they will “do whatever it takes” and go to any lengths to maintain the power they should never have been trusted with in the first place.

Prevention is infinitely preferable to the improbability of cure.

Self-centred and perhaps narcissistic people in leadership positions could not be more totally and fundamentally different from their selfless counterparts. While the positivity of selfless leaders spreads confidence, encourages collaboration, prioritizes teamwork, results in harmony and inspires followers to perform nearer to their potential, the negativity of self-centered leaders is more likely to spread fear, hostility, disharmony, conflict and blame and result in too many people acting primarily as individuals, protecting their own patch and seeking to compete with colleagues, being uninspired and underperforming nowhere near their true potential, precisely the opposite outcome from that expected from leaders.

In stark contrast, leaders of integrity who gain the respect and trust of those they lead are usually well capable of praise, one of the tools in their armory as they seek and genuinely want to see others produce their best, inspiring them by way of encouragement rather than discouragement.

Instead of selecting people who appear to convey some form of authority by way of apparent strength of personality, but ultimately may lack strength of character, should we not look deeper into the personality and character of those we choose to be our leaders? People who others may well describe as good, honest, kind, considerate, generous, humble, modest, fair, truthful, moral, decent, correct, virtuous, independent, open, objective, authentic, genuine, impartial, incorruptible, irreproachable, courageous, scrupulous, hardworking, dedicated, reliable, disciplined, upright, thoughtful, sincere, dependable, noble, righteous, upright, just, credible, respectable, reputable and trustworthy?

When leaders treat all other people, irrespective of position or title, with respect and behave selflessly, they lay the foundations for building the critical quality of trust. However, when leaders treat people with disrespect and behave selfishly, unsurprisingly trust can be a casualty, as they continually fail to appreciate that trust, reputation and respect lost are very hard to regain.

Fortunately many “legitimate leaders” do find it easy to put the interests of others first and research suggests that ambitious leaders who also display humility lead far more successfully. The work of the likes of Richard Boyatzis and colleagues in the field of Emotional Intelligence provides evidence that people do follow “inspirational leadership” although some academics within the business ethics arena have doubted whether such a concept exists.

As Blanchard and Peale observe in “The Power of Ethical Management”: “People with humility don’t think less of themselves… they just think of themselves less”. vi

© Julian Martin Clarke 2021

(Research 2010-2021)

ii McCord, William & McCord, Joan (1964). The Psychopath: An Essay on the Criminal Mind, Princeton NJ: p51

iii Hare, Robert D (1993). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Simon & Schuster; p58

iv Salters-Pedneault, Kristalyn, (2018) Mood Lability and Borderline Personality Disorder; & (2017) Diagnosing and Treating Borderline Personality Disorder

viBlanchard, Kenneth H & Peale, Norman Vincent ‘The Power of Ethical Management’ Harper Collins 1988

vii Fiske, Susan T.;Taylor, Shelley E.(1991) [1984]. Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

viii Rim, S.Y, Uleman, J.S & Trope, Y. (2009). Spontaneous trait inference and construal level theory: Psychological distance increases non-conscious trait thinking, J Exp Soc Psychol. 2009 Sep; 45(5): 1088–1097.

ixGilovich, Thomas; Savitsky, Kenneth (1996). “Like goes with like: the role of representativeness in erroneous and pseudoscientific beliefs” (PDF). The Skeptical Inquirer. 20 (2): 34–40.

xTversky, A., Kahneman, D., (1974). “Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases”. Science. 185 (4157): p1124.


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