Power trouble – How one unscrupulous leader destroyed up and coming leadership under them

antCliff was a recent new hire for the company. He had been recruited by a man who was the second-in-command of the US office and the head of the Canadian office. Cliff had been hired for one specific and focused job, to develop and oversee the Latin American interests of that company, a job which had been vacant for quite some time.

At the conclusion of his first week on the job, Sam, the head of the entire company, asked to have lunch with Cliff so he, Sam, could discuss a matter of importance and urgency. During that lunchtime encounter, Sam told Cliff that he had wanted to retire for quite some time but had not found a successor. Now, he told Cliff, he believed he had and was going to hand over the reins of the American headquarters and the entire company  to Cliff.

Cliff was shocked.

He barely knew the man, knew of the company only by reputation, and felt completely inadequate for such a task. Nevertheless, out of respect for Sam and his company, he was willing to pursue the matter over time if that was indeed what the man wanted.

Over the next several weeks and months Cliff was assigned more and more responsibility. On a business trip with him, Sam suggested that a formal transition plan be drawn up to be presented to the Board of Directors at the next meeting in a few weeks. After more discussion about the particulars, Sam asked Cliff to draw it up, which he did.

The boss asked Cliff to make the presentation at the meeting of the directors, which seemed odd to Cliff. Why didn’t Sam make the presentation himself? But, wanting to comply, Cliff agreed.

During the board meeting, Sam said, with neither explanation nor elaboration, that Cliff had a proposal to make. Cliff passed around copies to everyone and made the pitch according to the criteria he and Sam had discussed and to which Sam had not only agreed but had indeed stated should be included. It called for a gradual transition over a considerable period of time.

Then, the weather turned stormy. The board, almost to a man, objected. Cliff was too new, too unknown. They asked Cliff to step outside so they could discuss it privately, which he did. When they called him back in, Cliff was told that his plan, emphasis on his, was not acceptable.  Cliff turned to Sam and asked him if he had not told the board that the idea was not Cliff’s but Sam’s.

Sam just sat there.

Cliff had been hung out to dry.

The relationship did not last much longer, for reasons that are quite obvious. Any respect Cliff may have had for Sam immediately vanished. Sam’s actions were either conspiratorial, which means that Sam is Machiavellian, or they were cowardly. Either way, it spelled doom.

Now, what is the point? Well, I have been writing these past several posts about power. This story (I changed the names but it actually did happen) demonstrates how destructive power can be.

Here is how:

First, when power is misused in this manner it certainly destroys one’s standing and relationship with subordinates because it teaches them that any trust they may have had in you has been proven to be stupid and dangerous.

Second, such manifestations reveal a lack of integrity. If a leader will say and do what Sam did, s/he has no scruples at all. They lack emotional maturity and psychological stability. They make plans without prudence. They toy with the emotions, hopes, and good will of others. At worst, they are scheming and conniving.

Third, assuming that a lack of scruples is untrue and that the leader meant well but it turned sour, an event like this then demonstrates cowardice. The leader lacks the cajones to own up to his or her actions, intentions, and decisions, to back up his own plan, and to defend those who trusted in him.

The argument was made in the board meeting that Cliff was too ambitious. This diagnosis was incorrect and indicative of a group who thinks way yonder too highly of themselves. They, like Herod in the New Testament, claimed to acknowledge and invite new leadership (Herod, for those who may not be familiar with the story, was the reigning Roman governor over Judea at the time of the birth of the Christ child. When Herod was told of the birth it was described as the birth of he who would be King of the Jews. Herod claimed to welcome the news asking that when the birthplace was learned that he be told so that he could worship the child too. What he really did was sadistically order the murder of every Hebrew boy under the age of two.) When new leadership does appear, which by the way it always will and always must, it is viewed as a threat to the old order. Some far-sighted leaders welcome and cultivate it. Others, like Sam, use insidious methods to sniff it out and then use even more insidious devices to snuff it out.

Fourth, Sam was much too clever to simply fire Cliff. He had to humiliate and stain him so the problem would be Cliff’s, not Sam’s. So he manipulated a trusting and enthusiastic young man into a trap and sprung it at a board meeting where the others, with only a little encouragement, would paint Cliff as ambitious and clawing for more power.

Here’s a hint. Never confuse enthusiasm in your subordinates for ambition! It may look the same, but find out before you cast apsersions.

And never resort to tricks like Sam. The Sam’s of this world will win many battles, but they do so at great personal cost, and like Herod they ultimately lose the war.

Are there more ways unscrupulous leaders misuse power? Absolutely! I am certain you have a horror story or two. Send them along by leaving a comment below or, if that is too public for you, send them to me in an email to jack@thepracticalleader.com. I’ll address the principles in a future post (without identifying you unless you want to be.)