“Power doesn’t always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do.” — Biographer Robert Caro, speaking about Lyndon Johnson
Month: April 2020
We just finished watching The Borgias. It was, while entertaining, not particularly accurate history.
In the hierarchy of entertainment based on actual human beings, it wasn’t a true story. That would have meant everything depicted in it happened as depicted. Nor was it based on a true story, where the basics happened as shown, but with some plot points and character development enhanced for dramatic impact.
No, The Borgias was, like The Moral Hazard of Lime Daiquiris, the novel Dave Kaiser and I co-authored, inspired by a true story — neither its creators nor Dave and I let mere facts interfere with entertainment value.
It was, in a word, fiction.
But never mind all that. Instead, mind all this: During the time we were enjoying the show, I happened upon an old (2004) KJR that talked about servant leadership, and another that discussed the popular diagnosis of psychopathy among business leaders.
Which led me to wonder how servant and psychopathic leaders would have fared in early renaissance Italy.
My not particularly unpredictable guess: The psychopaths would have fit right in. The servant leaders? Not so much. Not only wouldn’t they have lived to a ripe old age, but in the Middle Ages they probably wouldn’t have lived to a ripe middle age.
Which, sadly, calls into question the whole notion of servant leaders. As Machiavelli (nicely depicted in The Borgias as the Florentine ambassador and Cesar Borgia’s occasional mentor) explained in The Prince, “Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.”
In Renaissance Italy this meant having no qualms about engaging in armed conquest and the occasional assassination. In the modern workplace, backstabbing is more often metaphorical, but, I suspect, no less frequent.
If your career is academic you might consider basing your thesis research on this question. The easy part: a survey that asks a random sampling of employees whether they’ve ever been backstabbed. I predict an arithmetic mean of 100% with an error bar of +/- 0.01%.
Just as easy: also asking whether they’ve ever engaged in backstabbing — for this I predict the mean will be below 5% (error bar of +/- 1.0%). If I’m remotely close that would mean five percent of the workforce routinely victimizes everyone else.
Except that what would really mean is that most of us, faced with anything less than adulation by our managers and peers, conclude we must have been victimized while those of us who receive adulation from our managers and peers figure it must be well deserved.
Which gets us back to how the Borgias behaved in The Borgias (sorta plot spoiler alert, but only in general). No matter who they tortured, killed, imprisoned, or inflicted other forms of mayhem on, they just couldn’t seem to figure out that they had so many enemies because they tortured, killed, imprisoned, and inflicted various forms of mayhem.
The Borgias might not be accurate history. But as a metaphorical account of how psychopathic business leaders think and respond, this is, in my experience, a not-unreasonable rendering.
Which leads to this: If you aspire to reach the executive ranks and want servant leadership to shape your actions, be prepared for disappointment.
Whatever else, you’ll have to research potential employers carefully and subtly, and especially consider the affiliations and histories of those on the board of directors. If you don’t like what you know about the companies they come from you probably won’t like the management culture of the organization they govern.
Usually, when discussing the role of fiction vs fact in developing a worldview, the KJR position is that you should rely on facts to make your decisions, with fiction being a useful way to illustrate your thinking.
But in the question of servant vs psychopathic leaders, it’s the idea that those with a servant-style temperament are likely to reach the top echelons of the organizational chart that’s fiction. The Borgias illustrates the point nicely; the Borgias and their enemies and allies demonstrate it.