The corruption of leaders in high places — Rodney Toh

SEPTEMBER 4 — Recent leadership research gleans from ancient texts to gain a new understanding of why good leaders fall once they achieve success. Scholars, for example, developed the hubris syndrome based on Greek mythology to understand the psyche of leaders in explaining the destructive effects of success. As retold in Ovid’s Metamorphóses, Icarus and his father Dӕdalus escaped from a high tower by creating wings using wax and feathers. Dӕdalus warned Icarus against flying too high lest the sun would scorch and melt the wax. Feeling triumphant and invincible following the escape, Icarus rejected his father’s advice and soared higher — success had gotten to his head. The sun soon melted the wax, and the over-confident Icarus fell to his death.

Another attempt to recognise the corrupting effects of success is based on the Torah and Old Testament texts on the fall of King David. David rose to power from a humble beginning as a lowly shepherd boy. As King of Israel, David ruled a growing and prosperous country with a formidable army and loyal servants at his disposal. Despite his strong character, moral courage and charismatic personality, his encounter with Bathsheba marked the beginning of his end.

One day, instead of leading the Israelite army to war, David decided to remain in Jerusalem. According to ancient texts, David woke up from an afternoon nap and saw, from the top of his palace roof, a woman bathing. The woman was Bathsheba, the wife of one of his officers, Uriah. Desiring Bathsheba, David sent for and slept with her, and she became pregnant. Following a failed attempt in concealing his progeny, David ordered Joab, the commander of the Israelite army, to assign Uriah to the frontline battle where fighting was at its most intense. Uriah was subsequently killed. This encounter with Bathsheba casted a long shadow over David’s reign as king. The eventual death of his son and betrayal of Joab, the strife and conflicts in his family, the loss of respect from his army, and his persistent guilt for his sins haunted him throughout his life.

Ludwig and Longenecker’s brilliant study of David’s fall from grace delineates the convergence of four symptoms, known as the Bathsheba syndrome, that help us understand why good leaders fall: 

1. Increase in power leads to an inflated sense of invulnerability. David’s past successes reinforced his belief that he was invincible. Despite knowing that death was the penalty for adultery, he was confident he would go unpunished. Hubristic leaders also exhibit symptoms of exaggerated self-belief of being right and being vindicated. Icarus’ sense of invincibility, for example, resulted in his demise.

2. Increase in power leads to complacency and loss of focus. Past successes often boost the confidence of leaders about the future. Such complacency can divert their thoughts to things other than their priorities. David exhibited a sense of complacency when, accustomed to warfare victories, he decided to spend leisurely time in the palace instead of leading his army to war. The complacency afforded him dangerous opportunities to indulge in personal pleasures. This aspect is similar to the hubristic symptom of neglect of details. Hubristic leaders tend to see their world primarily as an arena to exercise power and seek glory. Such a broad vision will result in the clouding of the detail consequences of brash decisions.

3. Increase in power leads to an abuse of privileges that come with power. Ascending the power hierarchy is usually accompanied by privileged access to information, places, people or objects. David had vast influence from his control of land, resources and people. For example, his privileged access to the high places in the palace above the rest of his subjects allowed him to notice things others do not for him to lead his people better. David, however, decided to abuse these privileges. Some scholars even claimed that had David wished, he could have forced the divorce between Uriah and Bathsheba.

4. Increase in power leads to an increase in unrestrained control of organisational resources. David was at the top of the pecking order and was not answerable to anybody. His unrestrained control of resources is evident in his attempt to conceal his wrongdoings by moving people and resources at will. This can be seen in David’s delegation of commandership to Joab and the ordering of Uriah to the frontline of the fiercest battle.

Unique to the Bathsheba syndrome, Symptoms 3 and 4 provide the context upon which abuse of power exists. In other words, privileged access and unrestrained control of resources allow the corrupting effects of power and success to manifest and escalate. While both the Bathsheba syndrome and the hubris syndrome focus on leader traits, the former also considers contextual influences and offers some understanding of why good leaders fall in high places. I think the implications of the Bathsheba syndrome are worth reflecting on, especially for the chief executive officer positions in large firms. A future article will explore this further.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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