According to many researchers, Western society appears to becoming overly individualistic, self-centered and materialistic. This should not be surprising given the importance the socio-economic system places on the maximization of material self-interest—it would be a surprise, of course, if it were otherwise.
Many people, especially younger people, are understandably quite focused on getting ahead—meaning making money. A Pew Research Center survey in 2007 reported 81% of 18- to 25-year-olds versus 62% of 26- to 40-year-olds said getting rich was their most important goal. That is, having a successful career—climbing the ladder of success—is the goal and path that yields recognition, status, position, privilege and wealth. Who wouldn’t want these! In a self-interest maximizing socio-economic environment such trappings are the measure and mark of success.
So what is the best way to get ahead in an organization? Don’t try to swim against the tide; don’t spit into the wind; don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers. It is all about ‘me’ trying to look good, especially when the bosses are looking. It follows that playing for ‘me’ can look a lot like playing for the ‘team’. Being the sycophant is merely a role one plays toward career advancement.
Accordingly, those who successfully play eventually attain top-level positions within the hierarchy of an organization. They are then referred to—erroneously I might add—as ‘the leadership’. That said, many might ask why erroneously? Well, we’ve addressed this issue in many previous essays such as Misplaced Attention, Leadership Involves We Not Me and What to Look For.
But more to the point, success in a career does not equate to success in leadership (for more on this see “Leadership and the fate of organizations” by Kaiser, Hogan & Craig in American Psychologist, February-March 2008). For example, while charismatic executives may get paid well and engender an adoring following, they don’t generally perform well as leaders on behalf of the organization. The organization like the people who comprise it, are simply instrumental to their self-serving intention. If charisma is not coupled with critical thinking, systems thinking, synergistic/creative thinking, an understanding of the importance of progress in business and an appropriately developed sense of self, then the career built is precariously resting on sand. Such superficial people tend to be narcissistic, the creators of toxic environments and the destroyers of potential.
Organizational performance is an emergent property that arises from the interaction among many in an organization. Hence when the interactions are sterile—not trusting, not collaborative and not synergistic—as would be the case in a fear-laden environment, organizational performance is sub-optimized.
This can be a very vicious cycle, where those at the top surround themselves with like-minded people—not possessing the inquiring mind of leadership, but the incurious mind of a career climber—who are playing their way to the executive suite. The measure and mark of success is clear. Could this be a major reason for the dearth of effective leadership throughout many of our organizations?