Friday, July 31, 2009

Thom Hartmann on the CEO as Sociopath: Applications for Higher Education

Thom Hartmann posted an interesting piece at the Alternet site a few days ago. He suggests that, to be a successful CEO—particularly in the corporate, for-profit sector—one needs to have sociopathic tendencies.

Hartmann is a trained psychotherapist as well as a journalist. In this piece, he argues that to make decisions on an ongoing basis that ruin the lives of other human beings, and to be willing to reap rewards for doing that as a “leader,” one has to have sociopathic tendencies. How otherwise to put your head on the pillow at night (and take the big paycheck to the bank), without ever wondering about the lives of those you destroy?

The heart of Hartmann’s argument:

CEOs of community-based businesses are typically responsive to their communities and decent people. But the CEOs of most of the world's largest corporations daily make decisions that destroy the lives of many other human beings.
Only about 1 to 3 percent of us are sociopaths -- people who don't have normal human feelings and can easily go to sleep at night after having done horrific things. And of that 1 percent of sociopaths, there's probably only a fraction of a percent with a college education. And of that tiny fraction, there's an even tinier fraction that understands how business works, particularly within any specific industry.
Thus there is such a shortage of people who can run modern monopolistic, destructive corporations that stockholders have to pay millions to get them to work. And being sociopaths, they gladly take the money without any thought to its social consequences.

I think Thom Hartmann is onto something. As I’ve noted in previous postings, I’ve found this pattern of academic-leader-as-sociopathic-CEO on the rise in institutions of higher learning, and I believe that it’s a pattern that ought to concern everyone in American society, due to the trend-setting influence of higher education in our culture.

As university boards of trustees are dominated more and more by those with ties to the corporate world (corporate attorneys, business leaders, church leaders who run big church corporations, etc.), boards of trustees look more and more for presidents who think like CEOs, who act like CEOs, who proudly profess to be CEOs rather than academic leaders. And the consequences for the institutions such CEO-presidents lead could not be more dismal.

Academic inquiry and academic excellence suffer in these institutions, because faculty are exploited and know they’re exploited. Some academic CEO-presidents gleefully undermine faculty governance and faculty rights, ignore due process in firing faculty, threaten faculty members with reprisal if faculty ask critical questions: they reduce faculty to the level of dispensable workers-cum-things in a labor pool without the protections from workplace harassment long afforded to academics to enable them to engage in serious thought and serious research.

This approach to academic life undermines academic excellence in the grossest way possible, by making faculty frightened to think, speak, publish, and teach. In institutions governed by fear, where a ruthless CEO-president can fire at will (and there are such institutions of higher learning out there), faculty become so intimidated that they will not open their mouths even when academic integrity is at stake.

I have seen a case like this first-hand, and it has been sobering to watch. The president-CEO whose behavior I’ve observed closely, since I have had to work closely with her, actually calls herself a CEO—and proudly so. Her pattern, by now a well-established one, is to go into a relatively stable academic institution and immediately produce such chaos that the institution starts to malfunction, and then falls on financial hard times.

The chaos results from a pathological tendency of this leader to imagine that even those she has placed in positions of trust, and needs to trust in order to keep her institution functioning, are conspiring against her.
When she begins to distrust a member of her own team, she actually targets that person and begins actively subverting his or her work, to lay a foundation for firing him or her with allegations that the team member did not work hard enough or competently enough.

The economic hard times this president-CEO induces through her deliberate creation of institutional chaos then become an excuse to fire more faculty at will—targeted faculty whom the president suspects of being enemies—without due process or strong proof of financial exigency. This, in turn, leads to negative media attention and negative scrutiny from accrediting bodies and academic watchdog agencies, who censure the schools led by this president. And the negative media attention and censuring by academic bodies in turn causes further attrition of funding to the school from donors who would otherwise support the school’s mission, but become concerned that its current leader is undermining the mission.

I’ve become convinced that this person’s behavior does, indeed, have a very strong sociopathic basis. She seems tragically incapable of viewing the other human beings around her, including members of her own academic team, as human. She treats people as objects—dispensable objects to be moved around at her whim on any given day, and when she has grown tired of those objects or suspicious of them, to be discarded like used tissue, with nary a thought about the consequences of such treatment for their human lives.

To behave that way, and to do so over and over again, even when the consequences for oneself are painful (e.g., negative media attention, complaints to academic watchdog bodies, lawsuits), one has to be sick, I’ve concluded. One has to be incapable of learning to change one's dysfunctional patterns, even when those patterns cause one increasing pain. This is a very specific kind of soul-sickness, a soul-sickness rooted in a remarkable capacity of a CEO to view other human beings as less human than herself, as, in fact, dispensable objects.

The corporate world rewards such sociopathic behavior in its CEOs by paying them big bucks. Sadly, the academic world has begun to do the same, as it makes dollar signs rather than academic integrity its bottom line—as its governing boards do this, that is.

In the case I’m discussing above, though the CEO-president in question has now replicated the pattern I’m describing at each institution she leads, her governing boards have stood behind her. Her ruthless, inhumane treatment of her employees is justified as good economic stewardship, necessary hard-nosed pragmatic decision making to keep an institution economically viable.

When this approach to academic leadership is allowed to go unchallenged in our society, and when it’s allowed to become prevalent throughout higher education, we’re in trouble as a society. Higher education is not, in the final analysis, about making big bucks. It should not be about that goal, at least.

It should be about producing leaders who have sound values necessary to keep democracy alive. We fund all institutions of higher learning, both public and private, lavishly because of the social contract colleges and universities have made with our culture, to use those funds to produce strong, ethically grounded leaders with the skill to build democratic institutions for the next generation.

When we allow sociopaths to run our universities, and to justify their sociopathic behavior by claiming that they are simply being good CEOs, we’re headed for big trouble as a society. Academic leaders who betray core democratic values in how they run a university teach an unhappy lesson about values to the students of their university.

As I've noted in previous postings about this topic, before it loses its soul definitively, American higher education would be well advised to re-examine the philosophy of some of the prophetic founding figures of values-oriented, transformative higher education, including Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman University. In her "Spiritual Autobiography," Dr. Bethune notes the foundational significance of institutions of higher learning in imparting the values necessary for democracy to thrive, as she concludes, “In this atomic age, when one small materialistic possession has wrought fear among peoples of the world, I am convinced that leadership must strive hard to show the value of these spiritual tools which are as real as anything we touch or feel, and far more powerful."