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Is Irrationality a Key Leadership Trait? Donald Sterling and Vladimir Putin

I can’t get used to all the reporting on Donald Sterling. The media have gone to town on it. He’s a bad guy no doubt; but there's even worse. How about the unspeakable and truly despicable Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Bok Haram, if you want the lowest villain of them all?

Nonetheless this got me to thinking (again) about the nature of leadership. I don’t have to tell you that there’s a lot of words been written on the topic. The vast majority of them are about how to make leaders better, more rational and more just.

But is there a case that being irrational is a key leadership trait? That without it, you might not rise to the heights of inspired leadership, or, conversely and unfortunately, to the depths?

Winston Churchill was regarded as irrational; why not just do the rational thing and make peace with the Nazi regime? Putin is regarded as irrational for putting nationalism above economic factors. Remember Muammar Gaddafi, the erstwhile leader of Libya? He was undoubtedly irrational too if not totally clinically insane.

But all of these were regarded as a powerful leader, like them or not. I don’t know how popular Donald Sterling is but I would wager he has a lot of covert support; some of that would come from his racism. Some of it would also come from his apparent irrationality (i.e. damn the torpedoes, I’m a billionaire and I don’t have long to go anyways)..

Modern scholarship and neuroscience is casting some light on the matter. We all have deep cognitive biases of which the vast majority of us are unaware that influence our decisions. But because we are conscious of our image and want to be socially or politically correct, we tend to rationalize our decisions by invoking these politically correct factors rather than the real reasons that are driving many of our decisions.

Is that irrationality? It sounds like it to me. So many leaders who claim to be making rational decisions are actually making irrational decisions but cloaking them in a patina of rationality.

But, let’s face it, the debate over what constitutes good and/or rational leadership is usually driven by a certain class of people. Educated, professionals, upper-middle-class values, ideals of democracy and justice. Count me as one of the guilty.

But the vast majority of the people in this world don’t necessarily subscribe to this vision. Sure they might say they d, but under the covers they actually believe in other ideals such as superiority of race, country or class, even if these could lead to negative consequences.

Despite all our Western ideals, Putin has 80% support. (Soon-to-be President) Sissi in Egypt is probably up there too. Donald Sterling almost looks rational compared to them.

And it’s not just about political leaders. There’s a school of thought that says to be a good and effective innovator, you have to be a little bit insane and certainly over the edge to some extent.

We now know that the revered Steve Jobs had what may well have been an illegal conspiracy going for several years to stop hiring competitors’ employees in return for them not hiring his. OK, that may well be rational, but you get the point.

I can discern two schools of leadership. There’s the professional school that favors fair-dealing, democracy, rationality, data-driven decision-making, MBAs and so on.

And then there’s what I call the common-touch school. This is driven by symbols, a sense of superiority about whatever takes your fancy, and inspired irrationality. This is what most of the human race instinctively identifies with and supports given half a chance. That’s where Donald Sterling and Vladimir Putin reside.

Lots of leaders in the private sector follow the common touch school. But they don’t run public companies. On the other hand the vast majority of companies are relatively small, private, family-owned and subscribe, if only tacitly, to the common touch school of leadership.

Support for the two schools runs in waves. We have just exited a professional wave and are now back into a common touch wave, hence Putin, Donald Sterling and Jonathan Goodluck (the President of Nigeria), who as a supporter of the professional school hasn’t a clue about what he’s up against, just like most of the West with Putin.

It’s a tough problem. Since the common touch school is reviled by the professional school, scholars generally don’t study it so generally educated people don’t understand it. That’s a pity since it is this school which is driving the fate of most of mankind, whether we like it or not.

If the professional school of leadership is to win out, we need to understand the common touch school much better than we do now. Vilifying it instead of studying it isn’t the way to go.

Irrationality might be a terrible thing to an educated person, but it’s awfully comfortable for most people.

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