Corporate scandals, Machiavelli, and our yearning for Authenticity.

A couple of years ago, the multi-faceted comedian Tim Minchin delivered a provocative commencement speech at the University of Western Australia, in which he shared nine life lessons with the graduates. Number eight on his list was:

“I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful”.

In no uncertain terms, Minchin’s message was an appeal to reconcile two ideas that seem to be constantly at odds: power and respect — not in the sense of commanding respect, but rather offering respect and earning it.

The subject of power is fascinating, particularly in the context of such an interconnected and interwoven world in which we live. Whether you are in the process of forging a career path for yourself, leading an organization or building your own company, you are very likely exposed to two equally intense, and arguably contradictory, schools of thought. On the one hand, you’ve got an overflow of how-to-guides for conscious capitalism, seminars on empathic leadership, and management consultants preaching about employee engagement. On the other, you’ve got a torrential downpour of headline news that seem to disprove the usefulness of all that in the real world. It gets to a point where it’s impossible not to wonder what it really takes to get to and stay in a position of power, and whose advice to take.

A persistent narrative in business, which some might consider liberating and others disturbing, is that a boss needs to do whatever it takes to save money and jobs. In accordance with the teachings of Niccolò Machiavelli, this perspective suggests that a virtuous leadership style is utopian because that’s not how power works. After all, multiple studies have shown that power makes people more prone to being narcissistic, taking risks, breaking rules, cheating and manipulating information.

Niccolò Machiavelli

“These truths may not be as inspiring as the latest wave of leadership fables, but they’re backed by social science and knowledge of contemporary organizations — and they’re likelier to help people lead”, argues Jeffrey Pfeffer.

This is a sticky and tricky point. One could probably argue that Volkswagen, FIFA and Petrobrás developed and perfected certain business practices — including deceit, fraud, corruption and hypocrisy — with the ultimate intention of safeguarding and preserving the institutions and states of which they are a part. This notion was at the core of Machiavelli’s beliefs; however, we should consider that the Italian diplomat wrote his most renowned work Il Principe in a time when it was still widely accepted that planet Earth was the center of the universe.

Without a doubt, Machiavelli correctly anticipated that the intimate relationship between politics and economics would morph into an irresistible gravitational pull for humanity, when large-scale global trade was still in its infancy. As far as that goes, his vision has endured. However, a lot has happened since … colonialism, mercantilism, imperialism, industrialism and capitalism. In many ways, the world has become a global village.

Also, there is one thing that rulers in the early 16th century didn’t really have to worry about: getting caught.

In contrast, when corporate scandals break out in the 21st century, it’s not only an embarrassment for the state, but hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk, financial losses range in the tens of billions of dollars, and trust is eroded across entire industries. Thus, justifying the dark side of power can easily backfire, potentially creating a very ugly ripple effect.

Therein lies the ultimate Machiavellian irony.

While geocentrism has been superseded by modern scientific discovery, egocentrism remains pervasive in corporate culture. Some individuals can still (sort of) get away with actions like increasing the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000% for no other reason than personal gain. And some renowned corporations still have the ability to grossly overstate their profits for several years, by systematically carrying out inappropriate accounting practices to meet pressures from shareholders.

Nonetheless, in the knowledge economy, it’s getting harder and harder to succeed as an individual, as a corporation, and even as a state government, without looking after the success of others. For some reason, though, we still assume that “in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good”.

Why does this continue to be our default mental model, even when there is plenty of evidence showing us the severe downsides of it?

Well, perhaps it’s the fact that we’re enamored with the alpha male narrative, imprinted in our psyche by the glorified image of rugged individualism, win-at-all-costs charismatic celebrities and college drop-out billionaires. Or perhaps it’s because the most common alternative discourse — “doing well by doing good” — might come across to some leaders as dull, unrewarding and unrealistic at best, anarchic at worst. Or perhaps it’s because striking a balance between compliance, freedom and inclusion is just too damn hard.

This is where respect comes into the leadership equation. But the thing about respect that few people recognize is that you can’t truly respect others, nor gain their respect, unless you respect yourself first. And in order to respect yourself, you have to take a close look inside the vault, and understand what you are truly yearning to bring forth.

We tend to get so distracted with the constant debate over autonomy versus authority, holacracy versus hierarchy, and power versus morality, that we are not spending enough energy on understanding the critical importance of authenticity. At a time when trust in business leaders and employee engagement are so low, this oversight can yield disastrous results.

Bill George, best-selling author of Authentic Leadership and True North, sums it up quite nicely in this passage:

“Each day, as you are tested in the world, you yearn to look at yourself in the mirror and respect the person you see and the life you have chosen to lead. [ ] Regardless of whether you are leading a small team or are at the top of a powerful organization, you will be pressured by external forces to respond to their needs and seduced by rewards for fulfilling those needs. These pressures and seductions may cause you to detour from your True North. When you get too far off course, your internal compass tells you that something is wrong and you need to reorient yourself.”

As it happens with many other concepts that merit deep practice, we must resist a reductionistic interpretation and application of authenticity. Being “true to oneself” is often confused with originality, habit or identity, among other things. This can become a recipe for staying stuck in the past, and limiting our own growth. We have little chance of succeeding in the knowledge economy if we don’t nurture our capacity to learn new skills, adapt to changing circumstances and evolve our style as we gain experience.

Our True North is about the choices we make in life.

Indeed, “with great power comes great responsibility”. There are plenty of leaders out there with a strong ‘personal compass’, using their power wisely as they navigate the myriad of challenges thrown at them, and sharing what they learn along the way. If we don’t see them very often in our Twitter feed, it’s probably a good time to reevaluate where we are directing our attention and whose advice we’re following.

twitter @christianfilli