Enemy At The Gates: The Corporate Psychopath and Delusional Leadership

In Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson relates Job’s penchant for distorting reality calling it the reality distortion field. I call it delusional leadership. Steve Jobs created a powerhouse company, and a lot of collateral damage along the way.

I have seen leaders that distort reality of an event, outcome or situation. The impact this has on satisfaction, motivation, engagement, individual self-efficacy and a host of other factors of individual and organizational success is significant.

Leaders who operate from a delusional state could be considered psychopaths, Machiavellian or narcissistic. In the book Snakes In Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare refer to this as the dark triad of subclinical psychopathy, discuss the differences, and note that psychopaths are at the mean end of the spectrum. The methods of the corporate psychopath make it difficult at times to assess the difference between the ordinary use of power and influence by leaders, and the psychotic underpinnings of manipulation and exploitation used by corporate psychopaths.

One key ingredient of leadership lacking in psychopaths is empathy. They have a total lack of empathy and are cold-hearted, but could make you think otherwise.  Impression management is one way leaders manage persona and corporate psychopaths use impression management to ingratiate themselves to those that they view can help them. The stories of the corporate psychopath are designed to manipulate others to their own end. Delusional leaders use a distortion of reality, historical reallocation of facts and telling the distorted story to others to validate their distorted reality.

I have observed leaders create a detailed story that builds their identity around other people’s work, or a delusional perception of the history around an event or outcome.  The validation of their reality is achieved by conning bystanders that may have group influence with a story that is patently false or at a minimum distorted as to reality thus making the distorted reality “real”.

The impact this has on those involved can create a culture of mistrust along with feelings of helplessness, resentment and resignation.

How do you manage delusional leaders? It is a challenging prospect since there is a significant amount of organizational trauma that can occur and much of the mechanics of delusional leadership relies on subtly changing perceptions. From my experience, what usually worked for me: authenticity, mindfulness, a support system, and integrity. These will eventually realign reality and shift perceptions. Crafting your own stories and producing an identity consistent with the positive end of the authenticity spectrum will help blunt delusional leadership.