Saturday, December 13, 2003

PART I: Yankee Leadership,
Sociopathic Leadership  

The Yankees, as predicted by everyone who writes about or analyses the team, have shot off the starting line this off-season like a nitro-fueled funny car: bucking, fast, lots of smoke, maximum sturm und drang. This accompanies the typically controlling behavior by the head-man, behavior that looks to trained observers (and should feel to his front office staff) exactly like sociopathy. To sportswriters, it looks typical of the indicted felon, but it looks mysterious, as in this interesting NY Times piece by Jack Curry.

In big American (and Russian, too, by the way) organizations, this is a significant, though not majority, style of what's called "leadership". I rarely write about leadership, because while it can be significant in some large organizations' trajectory, it's overhyped, a small subset of the management toolkit, it's not something that can be taught or trained into someone, and generally ephemeral (that is, in a rapidly-mutating environment, a specific leadership style tends to be effective only in specific, short-lived conditions, and few effective leaders have, or are able to learn, multiple styles).

It's worth understanding. Some of you may work in organizations run on the sociopathic style. Most of the head-men in these organizations (there are some women leaders who behave this way, too, but it's more a male style in American organizational behavior) are not actually sociopaths; most are people who behave that way because they learned it as a style, frequently from a dominant family member, sometimes from an early work or school experience. A code word, politically-correct, you'll sometimes hear from the functionally-sociopathic leader is "Machiavellian," but that's merely intellectual packaging of sociopathy with a classical reference meant to justify it. The Yankees right now are a clear road map of the style, why it works, why it doesn't, and some of the indicators you can use to recognize it.

Team head-man George Steinbrenner has a powerful need to win (good for business) and a powerful need for attention (great for business). He knows the attention works well as part of a business model, keeping the team in the news during the season-ticket deposit period. These two drives help keep the team competitive, keep feeding income, the fuel for success, into the Yankee organization. After three consecutive years without a World Series trophy (NOTE: there are some other teams that have gone three consecutive years without one), Steinbrenner is priapic for publicity (now) and a trophy (late next year).

The Yankees currently have almost every indicator of an organization run by a sociopathic leader. Here's the first of a few of the most obvious ones:

  • An intentional, public snubbing of long-time Yankee and beloved (especially by women) pitcher Andy Pettitte. The sociopathic leadership style requires MBF (Management By Fear); part of the sociopathic leadership style is to instill fear in everyone in the organization. MBF can make some underperformers who are slacking achieve at a higher level or leave (most of the underperformers just hunker down until the rage period is over, doing less -- to attract less attention -- so the organization slows in its work). Of course, it makes some high-performers lose some portion of their focus (undermining performance) and it de-motivates some high-performers. The net of MBF in almost every organization (but not all) is very negative.

The sociopathic leader can smoke whole groups of people to make a point (for example, Joe Stalin, Jack Welch), or can take a more surgical approach, isolating out a very-popular team member, viewed by all staff as an key contributor and a positive influence, and squash him flat as a bug in a public way, "showing" everyone that no rational force is at work, and everyone better get cracking, and they could be next anyway.

A leader like this will also use high-intensity praise and bonuses and apparently heartfelt intimacy to amplify the employee level of emotional investment in work and the organization, and this investment, once made, is a fulcrum the sociopathic leader can use to lever his manipulation more effectively. For that reason, people in these kinds of organizations are subject to an emotional roller-coaster, highs and lows, terror, followed by a bit of praise or money or other recognition that gives hope things have changed. The person who stays willingly in a sociopathic organization is very much like a chronically-abused spouse, filled with hope for a better future that will almost certainly never come (exception: someone who's a sociopath himself or someone who makes a life-changing amount of money out the deal, like a Major League salary, they can choose to overlook the effects).

Letting Pettitte go, by the way, was not necessarily destructive for the Yankees' prospects, statistically. His spot in the rotation is occupied by Javier Vazquez, a better, younger pitcher. Yes, there are arguments for the superior utility of left-handed pitchers whose home field is Yankee Stadium (Pettitte is a lefty, Vazquez a righty), but Steven Goldman's piece is a most clear-headed and perceptive argument both about the baseball and human truth of the Pettitte snub, and he makes pretty clear the net of the change works in the team's favor. (BTW: If you're not reading Goldman regularly, you should; his perceptions are broad as well as deep and transcend just the on-field details -- into which he has unusually good insight). It is a little destructive of morale and commitment, but that's only the personal workplace comfort of Yankee employees (players, front-office staff, etc.) and may not, in the end weigh more than the on-the-field edge the change makes.

It looks from the Berkshire Eagle piece I linked to earlier in this entry that Pettitte took this piece of organizational manipulation personally. Always a mistake -- when you work for an organization as calculating as a functionally-sociopathic one, it's best to buffer the emotional content of your work.

Have you ever worked in a organization that behaved this way, or do you perhaps work in one now? In the next entry, I'll point out more Yankee examples of the indicators of an organization headed by a sociopathic leader, and what people do to try to cope with being in one.

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