Neurotic Leaders, Paternalistic Managers and Self-Absorbed Workers

Pondering the A. G. Lafley HBR piece that’s been doing the rounds lately, I think I’ve finally really figured out the difference between managers, leaders and workers. The title, and this cartoon I made up, capture the essence of my argument: all three archetypes within the world of business are defined by how they self-destruct. This has been unclear for millenia because it is only in the last two years, thanks to technology, that the last of the trinity: the individual worker bee, has become fully defined. So let’s reconstruct the whole picture from the ground up. mgmtvslead

The Tragic View of Work and its Consequences

There are two basic stances towards the nature of work and its relation to human beings. Major philosophers of all cultures and schools agree that work transforms human beings, and that this transformation is the most essential fact about work. You can adopt one of two basic stances that are mutually exclusive and unfalsifiable. Which one you pick therefore, is a matter of religion:

  • The Idealistic Stance: Is based on humanism, and is predicated on the perfectibility of human beings. This stance leads to a view of fully-evolved leaders, managers and followers as archetypes of some sort of spiritual perfection  or self-actualization.
  • The Tragic Stance: Is based on the values of super-humanism (what Nietzsche called ubermensch), and is predicated on the idea that work roles are best understood as paths to transcend human identity and undergo rebirth as something else. This stance leads to a view of fully-evolved leaders, managers and followers as archetypes of human self-destruction (and recreation as superhuman, not to be confused with superhero).

From the point of view of the humanist idealists, the tragic view has always been morally suspect. Even tragically-oriented authors (usually naive religious conservatives) tend to articulate the tragic view in terms of “essential human corruptibility” (they really should be called pessimistic idealists rather than  tragic). Take my word for it though: the tragic view is amoral, not immoral. Nietzschean thought leads as easily to Gandhi as it does to Hitler.

In the century and a half that the business view of leadership  has evolved, the idealistic pattern has dominated. The tragic stance has been restricted to tragicomic strips like Dilbert, shows like The Office, and the rare Machiavelli-revivalist writer like Robert Greene (The 48 Laws of Power). If you do not like the tragic view, you should probably stop reading now.

The short version: To be effective, leaders must be neurotic bordering on psychotic, managers must be paternalistic bordering on tyrannical, and workers must be self-absorbed bordering on infantile. Effectiveness lies not in being “truly human” but as superhuman as you can stand to be before you chicken out and look for “happiness” instead (my interpretation of Nietzsche’s “will to power“).

Most people stop before the descent-into-madness phase, while they still have something human left in them. Most dream of getting out while they are ahead to spend the rest of their life in Grass-is-Greener-after-F***-You-Money self-actualization. This a flawed dream. If you insist on idealism, the world is going to screw you up one way or another. The difference between effective and ineffective people, be they leaders, managers or workers, is that the effective ones consciously choose how they are going to get screwed up, and how they are going to reframe “screwed up” in light of the superhumanist stance. Effectiveness is the art of choosing your poison. As mystics like to say, meditation is the art of conscious dying.  Being and becoming are process of unavoidable, but controllable decline.

I am not just making this up; this sort of view has a long history, going back  to Hegel and Nietzsche and beyond, but we’ll get to that some other day. For today, let’s see where this idea takes us.

The Tragic Stance in Management Writing

The tragic view is an extraordinarily good filter. The rule is simple: reject any ideas about leadership, management and individual worker ethics that rely on aspirational humanist ideals, or conflate morality and humanity. Only consider views that are either ideology-neutral or explicitly embrace the tragic view. Once you adopt it, you can pretty much ignore the bulk of existing writing on leadership as noise. Three sources that did recently make it past my filter are Marcus Buckingham, A. G. Lafley channeling Peter Drucker, and another recent popular HBR piece called Five Minds of a Manager, by Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg.

Marcus Buckingham is probably the first business writer to pay attention to proper attention to the whole triad, in The One Thing You Need to Know he proposes the following set of distinctions that characterize effective leaders, managers and workers.

Managing: “Discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it.”
Leading: “Discover what is universal and capitalize on it.”
Sustained individual success: “Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it.”

His view of an effective manager, I will argue, is correct. It is amoral because it is an insight that is as applicable to manipulation as to benevolent mentorship. His view of individual success also passes. Like Popper with his move from verifiability to falsifiability, Buckingham has taken an important step away from the rest of the Strengths movement (“develop your strengths and manage around your weaknesses”). He has adopted pure negative definition. Buckingham’s view of leadership though, is incoherent and can be safely ignored.

For leadership, A. G. Lafley channeling Drucker, gets to the heart of the matter: the defining characteristic of the leader (generalizing from “CEO”) is that “he/she must define and interpret the meaningful external reality for others.” This is illustrated in the cartoon above. Lafley (perhaps) rhetorically, defines this as something “only the CEO can do,” but in the world of 2.0, anybody who dares to throw open a window to shine the burning light of external reality on insular groupthink is a de facto leader.

Five Minds of a Manager, is worthwhile, but I don’t need to explicitly summarize it for this piece. Well worth the read though.

I am not saying there is nothing of value in the idealistic leader/manager/worker literature. There is, but from the point of view of the tragic stance, it is easier to start from scratch with whatever passes the filter than to attempt to reconstruct idealistic ideas in tragic terms. Stephen Covey, for example, is a classic sort of idealist writer. His seven principles can be reconstructed far more robustly within the tragic view, but the overhead makes the process an uphill one.

The Tragic Trinity

Let us systematize what we’ve learned from Buckingham, Lafley-Drucker and Gosling-Mintzberg.

  • Leaders interpret external realities for a group with no relevant access to it
  • Managers orchestrate internal realities and manage diversity and variety in human beings
  • Workers try to avoid unpleasant work and only do what they like doing

All three statements are value-neutral and apply as much to Hitler and his organization as to Gandhi and his. Where do these motivations come from, and where do they lead? All three are consequences of what you can call:

The First Axiom of the Social Psychology of Work: who you become depends on the relationship between your desire to influence reality and your ability to do so. Leaders, managers and workers are born of different patterns of insights about this relationship.

Add to this the famous Shaw quote:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Many people quote this because it sounds clever. Few realize it is in fact literally true. From the point of view of humanist values, effective leaders and managers are truly unreasonable. In fact, through their influence on those who might otherwise stay reasonable, they drive the latter to unreasonable fates as well. Essentially leaders and managers both want to influence the world more than they are personally capable of, and that leads to their peculiar paths of self-destruction. A means-focus (on people) leads to self-destruction in manager mode, while an ends-focus (vision) leads to self-destruction in leader mode.

That’s how you end up at my adjectives: neurotic, paternalistic and self-absorbed.

What we prize as leader-ly vision is in fact a neurotic obsession with a far greater scope of concerns than humans are designed for. Success makes things worse, since it encourages leaders to stray from the original borderline-healthy balance between reality and vision, and focus on vision at the expense of reality. This leads to psychosis. Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date is an excellent set of pen portraits of real leaders, and shows how the empires of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others were built because they were jerks. Not, as we wistfully like to believe, despite their jerkiness.

What we prize as the people-development focus of great managers is in fact an unhealthy concern with the psychological well-being of others that has none of the checks and balances of professional therapy work. Managers, as they grow more effective, also identify with larger and larger groups, and eventually become the manifestation of an organizational Freudian superego. The Good to Great sort of prescription “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and then decide where to go,” is classic effective-manager thinking.  It is also the recipe for cults and Big Brotheritis. In this picture, the effective manager is a bus, not a human. All in all, unchecked, this can lead to self-destruction through runaway paternalism. As with leaders, when reality-disconnect happens, this takes a psychotic form, and you get real Big Brothers: all-powerful managers who actually delude themselves that they have others’ best interests at heart. Four legs good, two legs better, as Orwell’s pigs said.

Finally, we get to workers. Here is where Buckingham’s “find the one thing that you don’t like doing, and stop doing it” definition is illuminating. All workers struggle to stop doing the most unpleasant of the things they must do to earn a paycheck, without becoming leaders or managers. All they want is to be left alone to explore their modest, non-world-changing dreams. But once leaders and managers start down their paths to insanity, workers have no choice but to follow. And their personal path to self-destruction leads through denial and withdrawal to the sort of ultimate sort of infantile catatonia that Melville portrayed in Bartleby the Scrivener.

The reason individuals find it hard to stop doing the “unpleasant” work is that it is usually the part that makes money. This is for the simple reason that individual passions for (say) music or programming will follow the logic of those domains of endeavour, not the logic of money. The two will not align except out of random chance.

What has changed in the last few years with the rise of free agency and cloudworking is not that workers have found a way to escape this tyranny. It is just that they will no longer have managers and leaders to blame. Instead, they will be enslaved to “clients” and “customers.”

So place yourself somewhere inside the equilateral triangle of leadership/worker/manager tendencies and imagine your paths to destruction. It is kinda fun actually. Helps you appreciate Dilbert better.

We’ll do morality vs. humanism and Hegel and Nietzsche and stuff another day.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Fantastic. The tragic view makes much more sense to me. Perhaps that means that I’m more pessimistic than others in their worldview.

    Venkat, which category do you fall under?

  2. Well, I thought it would be obvious; tragic of course!


  3. bob ashley says

    A razor-sharp post! Another turn rarely taken, but oh so useful is toward literature. What you describe is essentially the genres of tragedy and comedy (or romance) in Shakespearean drama.

    Where we see great passion (idealistic) we are, according to Shakespeare, witnessing tragedy in the making. No one writing in the English language knows more about the realities of leadership than the Bard. And so, compelling leaders like Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Lear, well…they’re all going down. They must in order that society normalize itself, immunize itself against tyrants, cults, and false messiahs.

    The management literature hasn’t figured it out because its writers, for the most part, have had little or no meaningful contact with literature. Life imitates art.

    I’m retailing your post on Twitter!



  4. Thanks Bob, and yes, the connection to classical ideas about drama and tragedy hadn’t escaped me. It was just too much to try and work in here, and I’ve been mulling a ‘shakespeare in the boardroom’ kinda post, but it might possibly be beyond my abilities.

    One of the reasons I am holding off is that the literary path has some issues that I haven’t yet clarified to my satisfaction, unlike the philosophical one, which I think I have.

  5. One angle to think about is that managers and leaders are influencers at one level but workers at another level. This continues all the way up to CEO who still typically reports to a board and so on.

    Similarly, a worker may also show manager/leader tendencies at home or community level or even at self level (perhaps, especially true of those who read self-improvement books of the kind that Covey writes).

    This, I believe, both imposes limits on how much a manager or leader achieves (destroys) as well as makes it inevitable that all three eventually meet similar ends.

    From a spiritual point of view, self-absorbed (and least complicated) leads to the least “empty” destination though one would tend to think that people who achieve something by leaving a large, visible legacy (that they can claim to have created) would feel less empty at the end of it all.

  6. HeHe Twitter ought to be killing other social media sites