When a leader, governing body, enterprise or nation is showing symptoms of self-destruction, the wise give this natural process of decay room to take effect. Fools ignore the signs of self-sabotage and either try to prop up the falling edifice or continue to fuss at it vociferously. There is really no need to do battle with anything that has become it’s own worst enemy. I suspect this may be why:
- Mathew 5:39 states “but I say unto you, resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”
- Mohandas Gandhi encouraged nonresistance to effect change
- Sun Tzu, in The Art of War describes how emptiness can defeat fullness, but only the emptiness that cannot be described succeeds at this
I’ve seen this pattern of self-sabotage unfold in several business enterprises and academic settings. I’m currently seeing signs of this same astonishing demise in the antics of the Trump Administration, Congress and their political parties’ organizations. Here’s a glimpse at a trio of the dynamics.
Web of deceit
When leaders lack self respect, their psychic void gets filled by insecurities, neediness and desperation. None of this is admirable, so these leaders put on a show of bravado. However, they cannot earn respect from others with so little self respect, so they opt for collusion with lieutenants who are also equally needy, insecure and desperate. Loyalty gets defined as acting to maintain a web of deceit that bolsters their equally shaky confidence. To their way of thinking, only traitors would expose the hidden insecurities, ignorance or incompetence of the leadership team. Loyalists tell each other what they want to hear and avoid pushing any hot buttons. The inner circle is not alarmed when their leader shoots down those troublesome messengers who are bringing truth to power. All this ensures that no self-respecting outsider will show these leaders respect or fall for their contrived web of deceit. The tide eventually shifts so the team at the top loses all credibility and buy-in to their leadership. Meanwhile, outsiders set an example of self respect, a healthy distance from the mandatory collusion and a steadfast commitment to the truth. They become trusted, informal leaders who ease the transition of power and envision an inclusive resolution of the turmoil.
Winning a losing game
When leaders are consumed by winning at all cost, almost everyone they are leading looks like losers. They justify becoming authoritarian or totalitarian bullies because the losers need to be told what to think and do. The players of the losing game are doing whatever works. The rules no longer apply. There is no right and wrong. It pays to be ruthless to win small victories. Every negotiation appears adversarial to everyone labeled a "loser". The leaders’ tactics escalate the context of suspicion and mistrust. Opponents prepare equally adversarial maneuvers to retaliate against the attacks and expose the vulnerabilities of these leaders. Unbeknownst to any of the adversaries, they are all playing a losing game where no one can win. It’s like a nuclear war with second strike capability on both sides. The only outcome is MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. Before any meltdown, the pendulum swings back and forth, making news headlines, and taking turns at winning senseless victories. Adversarial conflicts are struggles of attrition designed to wear down the opponents, to deplete their reserves, to lower their morale and to weaken their conviction. It’s very fair. Both sides get wasted. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
The silent treatment
When leaders get worried that they are not getting respect because they are not leading, they start making gratuitous changes. They may throw money at problems that need more than a quick fix, turn up the heat on subordinates who already hold themselves to higher standards, or light fires under those who are already fired up to get better results. The leadership appears to be deaf, dumb and blind. It’s a mystery how the top can be so clueless when one’s colleagues and direct reports are fully aware of the dedication, determination and diligence brought to the job every day. It becomes obvious down below that it has become pointless to manage up or keep the leaders in the loop. The leaders deserve zero respect. The top leaders are then driving blind. They are steering with only their rear view mirror to guide them. The bend in the road becomes the end of the road for the leaders because they fail to make the turn. Nobody down below who could warn them had said a word about the change, danger or opportunity. The leaders were getting the silent treatment. The leaders had lost all respect following their debacle of misguided leadership maneuvers.
When these patterns occur in settings employing professionals (architects, engineers, lawyers, physicians, computer techs, college professors, etc) the brightest and best fly the coop, crippling the workflow. When it occurs at the scale of a nation, the national press becomes a far more trusted source than the self-sabotaging leadership. Grassroots efforts flourish and discourse outside the bastion of power reaches a fever pitch. There is an inevitable change in national priorities, alliances and agendas as the disheartened and disoriented seek to get their bearings amidst such a high level leadership failure.