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A view inside a powerful boss’s head

May 6, 2009

He intimidates you. He doesn’t give a shit about you or your views. He doesn’t treat you like a person. And yet you fear him enough to run at his smallest command.

How does that stack up to your idea of what a good leader should be? Was it one who listens, empathizes, explains patiently and inspires?

That’s what the pop psychology bestsellers would like you to believe. Can’t blame them. Like I’ve always said, writing is the best job on earth becuz you don’t have to do the things you tell other people to do.

So I felt vindicated when this old scientific article pretty much affirms my observation that emphatic, sensitive, patient and inspirational bosses are mythical creatures.

Experiments in the article suggest that people in power consistently fail the empathy test. In other words, they do not understand how you feel and in most instances, they can’t be bothered to know either.

So how do these people get to the top, you might wonder, and why do people instinctively toe the line with such insensitive bastards?

I haven’t found any articles on it yet but I can only offer my gut feel. I think its the animal gene in all of us. The gene that makes us instinctively organize ourselves along the lines of the ability to kill or do the most damage. The one with the biggest, sharpest teeth goes to the top. The timid ones go to the bottom.

If we are indeed basically animals, what better way to get a more accurate insight into the corporate jungle than to study animal behavior – say chimpanzees. I do think the law of the jungle will give you a more plausible answer than any “best practice leadership quality” hypothesis can.

But we like messianic figures because they give us hope. It makes life bearable, even if its just an illusion, which is probably why we continue to buy novels and movies.

But as with any situation, there are a few exceptions. There are Obama-type leaders who rise through the power of non-aggressive persuasion and empathy. But lets not waste time with flukes and exceptions. Lets do likely cases. Look around you. Who are the ones rising up your corporate ladder?

They are likely to be people with the sharpest teeth and the most insensitive attitudes. This is exactly what the experiments suggest and exactly what you see in a real jungle.

Perhaps it is the natural order of things?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2009 11:38 am


    nice guy finish last šŸ™‚

    Obama finished first and he is a nice guy. But he’s probably one in 10 million….

  2. May 6, 2009 2:31 pm

    Most people at the top of the food chain are those who are …er…carnivore? They devour others to go up. šŸ˜› So those people lead with fear, and not respect.

    I for one, do not like to deal with those (nobody does). So far, all my supervisors have been down-to-earth and honest kind of people (very helpful too). They might not be at the top of the food chain due to their personality, but i think they are a lot happier that way. šŸ˜›

    At least, they do not need to fear that their BMW or Benz might get scratched šŸ˜€

    Good thing we have a choice – stay in the corporate jungle or leave it and go down the road of risks. History is full of examples. Some people accept the circumstances and make the best of a bad situation. Others set sail to new lands, hoping to survive the pirate attacks along the way. The question is, what road will you take.

  3. May 6, 2009 4:53 pm

    Obama: Maybe he’s only a nice guy when we look from afar. We’re not close enough to get swept or stung by decisions he has to make daily. I don’t think he can afford to empathise or listen attentively to every man jack. He probably has to trample on some to get things done. And one may even get some impression he doesn’t give a shit. He’s leading a nation, remember? Not just a few guys around him. Nothing personal. Press and publicity agents don’t get paid for nothing.

    But the Hitler who shoots messengers who bring bad news will soon find a bullet in his own head. Sure, sometimes we meet powerful guys who run big, strong organisations who trample on the little guys around him and even kick the dog, successfully. The poor guys around him just need to do his bidding because they are close to the seat of power. That is motivation enough to stick around. The perks are great. Never mind the shitty treatment.

    Like skinning a cat, each person has his own way of getting things done. Each location, environment, situation or people can be different enough that you can’t apply the same methods. And there’s no single universal success formula. That’s why there are so many books written and they all can sell. They make readers feel good too.

    True. You can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try and I think Obama is finding that out. But speaking of hierarchy, bugs stay around humans because there is a benefit – the debris we leave behind is a feast for them. The little guys stick around for the same reason. In the big scheme of things, everyone has his place, albeit some existences being more unpleasant than others.

    It would be great if you could turn your corporate experience into a survival guide with a Southeast Asian flavor. Many US-based books don’t really work in the chinaman company. I mean, have a nice chat with the big boss to ease tension? I roll my eyes sometimes. šŸ˜€

  4. LC Teh permalink
    May 6, 2009 8:09 pm

    The wheels in this head are already spinning. Thanks for your suggestion… šŸ™‚

    I’ll be waiting to read your stuff. šŸ˜€ I met a writer at a fair in San Jose once. She wrote cookbooks. Not a prolific writer, just the normal run of the mill. She makes about US$12,000 a year on book royalties alone. Its good passive income, she enjoys what she’s doing.

  5. May 7, 2009 8:57 am

    Hmmm…more wheels spinning now šŸ˜€
    In USA more people read books. Here, people watch TV, Astro, DVDs, read blogs, comics more than books…. then there’s facebook (which ain’t no book!!!) Let’s see; I have to reach that book-reading market or create one here. Maybe I have to put my ideas into comics. Oh no, we already have Dilbert. šŸ˜¦

    I’ll get back after I oil those wheels….hahaha…

    Dilbert doesn’t always apply here. We need a Wongbert or a Chongbert. šŸ˜€

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