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Some bosses are all Id. A bundle of impulses in a suit — if they can keep the suit on — whose only predictable trait is their irrationality. We use all kinds of names for managers like that: Nutter. Ticking bomb. Predator. Moron.
We resent them. We denounce them. But we also follow, and even admire them. Or enough of us do that they manage to rise to, and stay in, power.
Those leaders are not just controversial. They are fundamentally anti-social. They hurt people, often impulsively, and then call it “authenticity.” They claim to have to shake things up to put an end to dysfunctional institutions, and lead the way to a better future. But in the name of authenticity and disruption, what they end up perpetrating is cultural assassination: they corrode norms of decency, trust, and cooperation in ways that are hard to repair even after they are gone.
Needless to say, there are authentic, disruptive leaders of a different kind. Let me call them counter-social. They also act impulsively, and passionately defy current structures and norms. But their impulses are tempered by compassion and channelled by curiosity, whereas anti-social leaders’ are fueled by suspicion and amplified by fear.
If anti-social leaders take liberties that restrict others’ freedom, counter-social ones work to expand it, especially for those who have had less than their fair share of it, in ways that long outlast their own tenure.
At a time when all leaders claim authenticity and promise disruption, it is not always easy to distinguish anti-social leaders from the counter-social variety. And yet it is ever more important to tell them apart, to understand what propels one or the other kind of leader to the top, and what drives us to become—or support—either one.
To answer those questions, we must go beyond dissecting leaders’ skills and styles. We must look at how societies make leaders and what leaders do to societies in turn. To do so, we would do well to revisit the work and fate of a reluctant leadership scholar: Sigmund Freud.
At the turn of the 20th century, Freud fashioned himself into a spokesperson for the unspeakable, an authority on the subversive, a voice of unreason — the assembly of which he named “the unconscious” — earning the precarious prominence of a soapbox on quicksand. Over three decades, his work sparked controversy and turned him into a public intellectual.
But by the late 1920s, as he set out to write Civilization and its Discontents, his mood had darkened. Freud looked around and saw widespread social tension, and leaders unable to contain it, but willing to exploit it. Warning about the dangerous appeal of those leaders, the book would become his most prescient and popular one — as well as his last.
In Civilization, Freud seemed to call a truce in his lifelong battle against the constraints that repression imposes on human desires. Some repression was needed, he conceded, to keep society going. Society might restrict our pleasures, he argued, but in return it helps us avoid the pain that other people can inflict on us.
Human beings have a certain innate aggressiveness, Freud contended. They regard their neighbor not just as a potential helper or partner. At times, they are tempted “to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.” Freud evoked centuries of history to conclude that “civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration” by the many expressions of human aggression.
“Instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests,” he asserted. If a society cannot regulate relations among members, the only way to settle conflict is brute force, and people will be happy to use it. Every social science, a century later, concurs. Shared interests and a common culture alone won’t keep us civilized. It takes justice, too.
A defining feature of a “civilized society,” according to Freud, is that it seeks to make its members equal under the law. That is what sets it apart from a tribe. Tribes do not restrict pleasure and reduce pain in equal measure for everyone. In tribes, the elite few and the unfortunate many are bound together by common enemies and cultures that repress dissent. (Tribes might feel safe, but what they really provide is aggression in numbers.)
Tribes become civilizations when they begin to expand by enfranchisement rather than by subjugation. And civilizations eventually strive to include everyone — with the only exception of people incapable of sacrificing self-interest for the common good.
Since we all harbor such incapacity to some degree, being civilized often entails feeling frustrated or guilty. Most of us accept this and try to conform. But some don’t, and claim a larger share of freedom. We call the most appealing among those discontents “leaders.”
Leaders, seen this way, are standard bearers of people’s frustration with social constraints. Their willingness to act on the impulse to disrupt the status quo fuels their appeal. But if all leaders are social discontents, not all discontents have the same social impact. An “urge for freedom” that refuses to be tamed, as Freud put it, can be “directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether.”
Put another way, the impulse to lead (or to follow a leader) might be counter-social or anti-social. Counter-social leaders defy certain structures or norms to make civilization more spacious.
Anti-social ones seek to make more room for those like them—a regression to tribalism that threatens civilization as a whole. While counter-social leaders make sacrifices for the greater good, anti-social leaders promise that you, too, won’t have to make any. The former recognize desires that they do not share. The latter regard different desires as treason.
Freud’s view of civilizations as striving for equality and inclusion might have been idealistic, but it was not naïve. He did not believe that the movement from tribalism to civilization went one way only. Tribalism, he warned, can rear its head in the most advanced civilizations. It is like a neurosis, that way: a collective regression that lets (some) people be anti-social.
Understanding the impulses beneath the rise of anti-social and counter-social leadership, then, is important for two reasons. First, we cannot tell those leaders apart by their command of science or their elegant style.
Anti-social leaders might be tech wizards or patrons of the arts — but tribal all the same. Counter-social leaders might use simple gestures and blunt tools — and leave us more civilized. And second, we can’t afford to wait for anti-social leaders’ legacy to reveal their intent. If we care for civilization, that is.
Freud’s story provides a cautionary tale. Closing Civilization and its Discontents, he observed that science had given people tools that could make them harmful on an unprecedented scale. But even as he warned of civilization’s fragility, he remained faintly hopeful that it would keep aggression in check.
Maybe he was being cautious. Maybe his forewarning was muffled by repression. The child of Jewish immigrants to Vienna could not fathom the society that had made him a hero turning against him. But shortly after the book appeared, anti-social leadership began unleashing tribal impulses across Europe. It would take a long time for civilization to regain its hold, and Sigmund Freud would not be there to see it.
This article is authored by Prof. Gianpiero Petriglieri. Gianpiero Petriglieri is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, where he directs the Management Acceleration Programme, the school’s flagship executive program for emerging leaders. A medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, Gianpiero researches and practices leadership development. You can follow him on Twitter @gpetriglieri.
The views expressed in the article are of the authors and not the views of the publisher. This article first appeared on December 4 in https://hbr.org.
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