Thursday, September 4, 2014

Failed Leaders and the “What Was He Thinking?” Problem

A former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, was convicted of 11 counts of corruption today. The strangest thing about the trial was that it happened at all. McDonnell was offered a plea bargain where he could have admitted guilt for just one count and had all the other counts dropped. He had a chance to see the evidence against him before he made the decision to go to trial. When you review the evidence, it is hard to understand how McDonnell imagined he would win acquittal. If I understand this detail correctly, the trial included a slide show of the improper checks from a wealthy donor that paid for one thing after another at the governor’s daughter’s wedding, which took place during the term of office. Just seeing a summary of it, one political observer told me that politicians generally get away with taking bribes of this kind, but not when they are documented in this level of detail. So what was the governor thinking when he took the bribes, considering that the cost of the wedding was a drop in the bucket among the many improper payments listed at trial, and what was he thinking later when he thought he could get away with it all? Unfortunately, the trial itself and the look back at the governor’s term in office revealed a series of occasions where you have to believe the governor was not in full command of his faculties. His thinking was clouded not merely by all the distractions of office and a criminal trial, but, you have to believe, also because his brain wasn’t functioning well.

As we learn more about brain function, there are reasons to wonder about the negative effects of the way so much of the world is run by tired, angry old men who as a class eat badly, drink and take a wide range of drugs, are often dehydrated, and barely exercise. This is the opposite of what you would ask for if you wanted a leadership class that had clear thinking supported by strong brain function.

It is an issue that first came to the attention of many in the public with the scandals surrounding NBA team owner Donald Sterling, whose mental functioning and ability to distinguish right from wrong declined so obviously that he had to be removed as a general partner from the team he owned. In the CNN interview he did, Sterling’s diminished mental capacity was so evident that people who saw the interview told me it was considered a black mark on Anderson Cooper’s career that the interview was even broadcast. It seemed a little too close to taking advantage of a feeble man who had obviously lost his mind. Few will argue with the need to remove Sterling from his previous post. But consider the state of that business before that corrective action took place. For some period of time, probably several years, a billion-dollar business organization was being run by a man who didn’t have the mental capacity to run any business. And I believe this is not an isolated incident, but reflects something that happens every day in large organizations all over the world. More than a few governmental bodies, charities, and business empires are run by people who go for years without showing the ability to make a good decision. They can keep up the charade, it seems, as long as they still remember how to cover their tracks so that no one can tell how badly they are doing in their day-to-day work. While I have focused on the problems of aging in leaders, that is just because so many of the most powerful leaders are more than 60 or 80 years old. The inflammatory diseases that can diminish mental function disproportionately affect older people but can affect anyone, while mental burnout and drug addiction may present similar risks for a leader at any age.

Directors, voters, and others should not give a free pass to any leader just because of a past record of accomplishment. We need to demand continuing competence and look for contrary patterns such as anger and blame, among other early signs of ineffective thinking. We may need better ways of determining how clearly people are thinking. Leadership demands clear thinking to make fine distinctions. The world is in such a perilous state in part because so many of our leaders are failing us, and in too many cases, I am afraid, it is because they have lost the ability to think clearly.