The Snake Marking Guide: The Perils of Leadership

Linda Henman

The Snake Marking Guide: The Perils of Leadership

We’d like to think that if we met someone who didn’t have a conscience, we would size up the situation quickly and accurately. If we were to encounter the corporate equivalent to the fictitious Hannibal Lecter, the evil psychiatrist Anthony Hopkins made famous in Silence of the Lambs, we believe that, like FBI agent Clarice Starling, we would not only assess him accurately, we would know what to do to overpower him. And we’d be wrong.

Snakes in the organization don’t look creepy; they’re often handsome. They don’t wear identifying markers or T-shirts that let you know to stay away; they wear designer clothes. They aren’t creepy; they’re suave and often powerful. These traits make snake identification difficult but not impossible. You just have to know what to look for—and how to distinguish a snake from a fallen star.

Recklessness and the headstrong desire for self-fulfillment that it brings have caused many leaders to strike a Faustian bargain that led them in a diabolical direction. Recklessness, an identifiable behavior among pathological narcissists, explains how and why leaders can fall prey to stunningly poor lapses in judgment. Add power to the mix, and you have a formula for a once highly-respected virtuoso to end up in the jailhouse, the doghouse, or the poor house.

Poor judgment has contributed to the ruin of religious leaders such as Jimmy Baker and Jerry Falwell, and corporate titans like WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers and Enron’s Kenneth Lay. Like Icarus, who disregarded his father’s advice and soared too high and too close to the sun, these once-admired leaders became reckless and fell. But how do you attempt to soar above competitors without melting the wax on your wings? Smart risk-takers define the playing field for everyone else by taking calculated risks and anticipating the future, not by idiocy and folly.

How can people who show so little judgment and so little honor rise to such heights in politics, business, sports, and entertainment? Here are my observations:

  • Often powerful people gain dominance because they take risks when others won’t.  These same people can become powerfully reckless. Sometimes their daring causes a breakthrough solution or cutting-edge product that saves the day, which further emboldens their risk-taking tendencies.
  • Deviation from traditional approaches often explains success. When evidence indicates a person has the ability to walk the path less taken, he can develop a narcissistic attitude that “the rules don’t apply to me.”
  • Prominent people tend to be persuasive and competitive. Once they identify an objective, they overcome obstacles to attaining it. They woo investors, enchant employees, and captivate the media. These abilities and this same focus and determination can work against them when they pursue objectives that involve lapses in professional judgment and personal conduct. 
  • Power draws enablers and sycophants—people who will tell these people of power what they want to hear—but they don’t suffer naysayers, detractors, or contradictory information. In fact, often the enablers will take over and shield the person in power from critics and disbelievers. In my work with CEOs, I often caution them not to believe all they hear and never to assume their jokes are as funny as the laughter in the room would imply.
  • Supremacy in any arena brings opportunity. Tiger Woods, JFK, Elvis Presley, and John Edwards—all had chances for sexual liaisons simply because of their fame. These kinds of men simply have more occasions to behave recklessly in other ways too, and when they don’t have the self-control to offset the opportunities, they find themselves in trouble.
  • As self-absorption and self-importance intensify, empathy wanes.  Anticipating consequences of behavior takes a back seat to the hedonistic pleasure of the moment. No concern about how an act will affect the innocents in the equation ever shows up on the internal radar of this kind of person—not until they stand before a nation crying and asking forgiveness.

Too often public figures destroy themselves when competitors or distracters couldn’t. I often wonder if these once-great people have subconsciously set up an internal competition to bring down the victor. Low self-esteem stands at the root of much of the imprudence. In fact, low self-esteem probably explains why most people don’t succeed. They fear both failure and success—those two imposters.