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Who Can Defeat An Undefeatable Leader?

Power is a double-edged sword. Without power, a leader can’t accomplish anything.

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Think of a leader who is very powerful, so much so that he looks invincible. Who can defeat such a leader? The wisdom will tell you that unless another person amasses more power than the leader who looks unshakeable, it is impossible to defeat such a leader. However, the possibility of a well-entrenched leader getting defeated not by the rival but by his own self goal can not be ruled out.

Let us begin with a famous Hindu mythological story of Bhasmasur. He was granted a wish by Lord Shiva that gave him the power to burn up anyone whose head he would touch by his hands. Having got this power, he was able to eliminate all his potential rivals. However, he himself was turned into ashes when by mistake he touched his own head. Do leaders also commit such acts of self-immolation? There is a saying that those who live by sword die by the swords. In this context we can also say that those who live by power die by their own power.

Power is a double-edged sword. Without power, a leader can’t accomplish anything. But the more a person is able to accomplish, more he starts enjoying his power. More he is able to accomplish, more followers he has and the cycle continues. The feeling that he can do anything sets in. Continuous stream of success makes him believe that he cannot do anything wrong. Just like Pygmalion, a legendary figure of Cyprus in Greek mythology who was a king and a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved, successful leaders fall in love with their own achievements.

They fail to recognize that many a times, success is the outcome of the role of chance and circumstances. They start thinking that they have all the answers. The need for listening to others’ viewpoint appears meaningless. Arrogance causes “snap” decisions.

Sydney Finkelstein in his famous article said that ‘such leaders suffer from the illusion of personal preeminence. You can see this from the way they treat people around them. The people they interact with are the means for achieving their goal. When leaders think this way, they often use intimidating behaviour to dominate the people who surround them.’ Such leaders ruthlessly crush anyone who isn’t behind them. Anyone who doesn’t believe in their philosophy, viewpoint, ideas is considered as undermining their vision. As a result, dissenting views are kept under cover and no one is left to warn them when they are heading for a catastrophe. If you need people with extra-ordinary power to do extra-ordinary things, then you need people with extra-ordinary power to do catastrophic things. Their extra-ordinary power becomes their undoing.

Past success makes them overconfident. If something does not work, then instead of evaluating it objectively, a mindset of doing this at any cost sets in which results into irrational persistence. If something does not work, such leaders can only think of conspiracy and sabotage behind this. Not only opponents but supporters also fall in circle of doubt. A greater control becomes the necessity. Trust in followers gets lost. With greater control comes greater frustration. People feel belittled, demoralized and helpless. Confidence in the leader is lost. While on the face of it everything looks rosy to the leader since nobody expresses his/her dissatisfaction, a massive defection is on the cards waiting for an opportune moment. Roderick Kramer of Stanford rightly observed that the most savvy and experienced leaders are capable of shooting themselves in the proverbial foot.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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leadership mythology leaders

Kamal K Jain

The author is Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at IIM Raipur

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