Leadership

The megaproject sponsor as leader: What does he/she look like and how does one choose the right person?

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2019

The megaproject sponsor as leader: What does he/she look like and how does one choose the right person?

By Willem Louw, Jan Wium, Herman Steyn and Wim Gevers

  • June 2019
  • Tags Features, Leadership

20 minutes to read

SHARE

The key role of the project sponsor in megaprojects

The importance of the sponsor role, including its contribution to the success or failure of a project, is widely recognised in project management literature. References to the sponsor’s leadership are equally prevalent in the literature reviewed. Executive sponsors are primarily allocated to strategic projects that are complex/complicated, high-risk and very visible. A megaproject is thus entitled to a sponsor from the most senior ranks within an organisation.

This paper explains how leadership theories can be used to identify instruments that can help to assess the leadership style and attributes/traits of such a sponsor. A framework is then proposed to identify assessment instruments to evaluate the leadership style and attributes/traits of project sponsors.

But first, what is a megaproject?

A megaproject is seen as a large-scale, complex venture that typically costs US$1 billion or more, takes many years to build, involves multiple public and private stakeholders, is transformational, and influences millions of people.

A megaproject is seen as a large-scale, complex venture that typically costs US$1 billion or more, takes many years to build, involves multiple public and private stakeholders, is transformational, and influences millions of people.

The element of the complexity of projects deserves some attention in the context of executive sponsors and their leadership. This calls for extraordinary leadership capabilities and management skills. Hence, various researchers have shown that there is a positive correlation between project success and the capacity of the executive sponsor to recognise complexity as soon as possible.

Sponsorship and leadership

The authors started off by defining the terminology sponsor/sponsorship in the project context. Six key themes emerged from this review:

  • The sponsor role is at a senior level in the owner (or client) organisation.
  • The sponsor role contains substantial dimensions of leadership (as opposed to being just a management role).
  • The sponsor is responsible for creating an effective governance framework for the project.
  • The sponsor is the owner of the business case for the project.
  • The sponsor is positioned structurally on the interface between the owner and project organisations, such that decision-making and support to the project manager are enabled, particularly for issues beyond the control of the project manager.

The sponsor is positioned in a specific organisational context — i.e. between the business (permanent organisation) and the project (temporary organisation). It is primarily the upward relationship between the sponsor and the board/senior executive, and the downward relationship between the sponsor and the project manager(s) that forms the basis for the identification of the sponsor’s leadership requirements.

The authors also looked at the myriad of definitions of leadership, and at the difference between management and leadership. They concluded that there is a need and a place for both governance and decision-making in the role of the sponsor, and that it is unwise and incorrect to separate leadership and management in the role too forcefully.

A megaproject … calls for extraordinary leadership capabilities and management skills. Hence, various researchers have shown that there is a positive correlation between project success and the capacity of the executive sponsor to recognise complexity as soon as possible.

The critical relationship between the sponsor and the project manager

The relationship between the sponsor and the project manager is critical. Well-informed and insightful sponsors will realise that they are the senior partner in a relationship based on collaboration. Accordingly, the sponsor will not trespass on the typical responsibilities of the project manager in executing the project.

Some researchers have pointed out that the best project performance is achieved where there is close collaboration between the sponsor and the project manager. Appropriate communication between them is as important.

The authors found that the role of the sponsor as leader in a collaborative relationship with the project manager is addressed to a limited extent in the literature. Similarly, it seems as if very little has been written about decision-makers applying their minds before the appointment of the sponsor to the project.

The leadership effectiveness of the sponsor

Leadership effectiveness can manifest itself in multiple ways. It ultimately depends on how well the leader chooses on a daily basis between a diverse set of behaviours. These behaviours can vary from setting direction that inspires and providing emotional support, to ensuring that the required governance is in place and is adequately monitored. Integral to effective leadership are the concepts of leadership styles, interpersonal skills (specifically emotional intelligence), and attributes and traits. It is accepted that there is no best way to be a leader, and that there is no single set of attributes that will guarantee project success because the personalities of leaders and their followers and the contexts of projects vary.

The relationship between the sponsor and the project manager is critical … insightful sponsors will realise that they are the senior partner in a relationship based on collaboration.

Leadership styles selected for evaluation

The leadership styles identified below have been included based on the availability of a style assessment instrument, on project management relevance and on being current:

  • Transformational leadership: A component of the Multi-factor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) assessment instrument
  • Transactional leadership: A component of the MLQ leadership assessment instrument
  • Situational leadership: Referenced in the project management context
  • Authentic leadership: Measured with the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ)
  • Servant leadership: More contemporary literature discussion, and possible to measure
  • Charismatic leadership: A distinct component of the Leadership Behaviour Inventory (LBI) leadership assessment instrument in the South African context
  • Visionary leadership: A distinct interface with emotional intelligence
  • Complexity leadership: Potentially answering the questions of complex vs complicated, and the possibility for use in the context of a megaproject
  • Shared leadership: Addressing the phenomenon that organisations are migrating to a knowledge-driven era in which multi-cultures and multi-geographies are prevalent.

Evaluation of selected leadership styles

Vision is regarded by many researchers as the first key skill that the sponsor requires. In addition, the development of vision for the project needs to be both compelling and powerful in order to align those involved with the project.

The transformational, charismatic and visionary leadership styles are part of what is termed “new-genre” leadership theories. They incorporate concepts such as symbolic leader behaviour; being visionary; communicating inspirational messages; surfacing emotional feelings; propagating ideological and moral values; and being intellectually stimulating. Visionary leadership is pertinently influenced by the act of vision creation. However, it is not a leadership style that is accompanied by an operationalised and validated measurement instrument.

Vision is regarded by many researchers as the first key skill that the sponsor requires.

From the literature analysis on leadership, it is possible to contextualise the role of the executive sponsor in an “identification of leadership” construct in the following way:

  • Leadership within the sponsor profile is a given.
  • Assistance to the decision-makers responsible for the selection of the sponsor is available. The leadership style of the incumbent can be determined via an operationalised and validated assessment instrument.
  • There is no leadership style that on its own contains all the elements required for effective leadership.
  • Outstanding leadership relies significantly on the action of putting into words and feelings a viable and inspiring vision.
  • Identifying whether the sponsor has the ability to be visionary can be performed via the MLQ and LBI assessment instruments. This can ensure that the project remains linked to the strategy of the parent organisation.

By using the construct above as a filter for screening the nine leadership styles selected, four styles remain for further consideration: transformational, charismatic, servant and authentic leadership.

There is no leadership style that on its own contains all the elements required for effective leadership.

Authentic and servant leadership are different from transformational (and charismatic) leadership. Some researchers say that creating an inspirational vision to motivate followers is not necessarily the forte of an authentic or servant leader. The intent of reducing the number of theories is not to reduce them to an absolute minimum. Rather, it is to identify leadership styles that enable the decision-makers to assess practically the leadership style of the designated sponsor on a megaproject prior to appointment.

The authors conclude that transformational and charismatic leadership styles are the preferred styles to be tested when identifying an executive sponsor for a megaproject. Both leadership styles have measurement instruments: for transformational leadership it is the Multi-factor Leadership Questionnaire, and for charismatic leadership it is the Leadership Behaviour Inventory.

At this juncture it is important to note that there is a relationship between the emotional competencies of the leader (including, emotional expressivity) and a range of leadership theories.

Conclusion on leadership styles

No leadership style on its own contains all the elements required for effective leadership, and no single theory covers all aspects of leadership behaviour. The authors believe the same argument can be offered for executive sponsorship.

Emotional intelligence within the leadership context

A number of leadership styles acknowledge that outstanding leadership relies significantly on the action of putting into words and feelings a viable and inspiring vision. Part of “putting into words and feelings” includes the concept of emotional expressivity – a communication style that contains distinct elements of variation in voice, facial expressions, eye contact, and coherent gestures of the hands. Emotional expressivity, combined with emotional competencies such as self-awareness, emotional expressivity, self-monitoring and empathy, are important dimensions in the broader context of emotional intelligence (EI).

Three conceptual models dominate the field of emotional intelligence: the Salovey-Mayer model, the Goleman model, and the Bar-On model. The Bar-On model in particular is based on the wider construct of emotional intelligence and social intelligence (ESI), and there is a significant predictive and evidence-based relationship between EI and transformational leadership.

To determine the EI of leaders at executive management level, the skills- and trait-based EQ-i assessment instrument can be used. The results indicate that it is very important for individuals to know specifically what traits and attributes are required on different occasions to perform the executive role successfully.

What leadership attributes and traits are required of executive sponsors?

First, the authors looked at the term traits, traditionally referred to as “personality attributes”. These typically include personality attributes as well as motives, values, cognitive abilities, social and problem-solving skills and expertise.

A comprehensive list of leader attributes can be compiled from the literature and thematically grouped into the following: strategic attributes, leadership and management attributes, the ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity, motivation, communication, openness to learning, networking and decision-making.

Attributes that can be obtained from experiential learning include:

  • An understanding of business case development, and seeking input and consensus on the contents of the business case among executives in the organisation
  • An understanding of basic project management concepts, and understanding and commenting constructively at a high level on scope, risk, schedule and cost management
  • The ability to understand and respond to the results of independent reviews of the project, and to hold the team accountable for such results
  • The ability to manage self within the time commitment agreed (both short- and long-term), with time management being a significant part of self-management
  • Sufficient knowledge of the business, its operations, market and industry so as to make informed decisions.

Positional attributes include appropriate seniority, credibility and (personal and positional) power within the organisation, and the active participation of the sponsor on the project throughout the life cycle of the project.

Researchers agree that these attributes “rarely exist in one person”.

Models for leadership attributes and traits identification

Next, the authors looked at the psychometric measurement tools that can be used to identify a sponsor for a megaproject. These instruments include the Belbin Team Role Profile, the Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness Personality Inventory, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The instruments were identified after engagement with two South African companies in psychometric assessments, JvR Psychometrics and BIOSS Southern Africa.

Outstanding leadership relies significantly on the action of putting into words and feelings a viable and inspiring vision.

Instruments for the measurement of leadership attributes and traits

In addition to the two leadership style measurement instruments, the measurement instruments listed in Table 1 can help to identify the leader attributes and traits of the sponsor. Collectively, a framework is thus proposed to identify assessment instruments for the leadership style and leader attributes/traits of a project sponsor.

Table 1: Psychometric and other measurement instruments typically used in South Africa to identify leader attributes and traits

Name of instrument Purpose used for / identification of:
Cognitive Process Profile (CPP)

Developed for and distributed by Cognadev UK/SA

Capability (including identifying the way the individual thinks when dealing with new information and solving problems of varying complexity; also assessing the individual’s potential for cognitive development.)
Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i)

Developed by Bar-On and made available by JvR Psychometrics SA

Emotional Intelligence (EI) (including self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal, decision-making, stress management, and well-being)
Critical Reasoning Tests — i.e. the Critical Reasoning Test Battery (CRTB)

15 Factor Questionnaire (15FQ). Developed by Psytech International and delivered by Psytech SA and others.

Reasoning ability (including measuring critical verbal and critical numerical reasoning skills. Designed for testing of executive managers.)
Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ)

Developed by Saville et al. and distributed by JvR Psychometrics SA / Psytech

Personality (including influence, sociability, analysis, creativity, change, structure, emotions, and dynamism)
Giotto

Develop by Rust for the Psychological Corporation in the UK, and distributed in South Africa by GiottoSA

Workplace integrity behaviour (instrument developed to unravel complex nature of personal integrity as it relates to the workplace)
Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI)

Developed by Hogan Assessment Systems, Inc. and made available by JVR Psychometrics SA

Personality (including adjustment, ambition, sociability, interpersonal sensitivity, prudence, inquisitiveness and learning approach)
Belbin Team Roles, developed by Belbin Measures high-level reasoning ability (Critical Thinking Appraisal); personality (16 scales of the Cattell Personality Inventory); and outlook, via a Personal Preference Questionnaire (PPQ).

Nine clusters for team roles (company worker, chairman, shaper, plant, resource investigator, monitor-evaluator, team worker, completer-finisher).

Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness Personality Inventory Revised (NEO-PI-R) model, developed by McCrae and Costa Focus on personality (extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, (low) neuroticism, agreeableness)
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) developed by Briggs and Myers Provides indication of and measures the psychological preferences of individuals when making decisions and how they perceive the world. The MTBI identifies 16 distinctive personality types.

Four pairs of Jungian theory based alternative preferences: Introversion/Extraversion; Sensing/Intuition; Thinking/Feeling; Judging/Perception.

 Although the list of recommended leadership attributes is comprehensive, it is optimistic. It is unrealistic that one individual should possess all of these attributes. Additional effort is therefore needed to identify the essential attributes of a sponsor.

It is clear from Table 1 that there are an adequate number of measurement instruments or tools to determine the leadership attributes/traits of a leader. As an example, the Cognitive Process Profile and Critical Reasoning Test Battery instruments can be used to deal with the attributes that focus on critical thinking skills, ability to handle ambiguity, and dealing with complexity.

Both the transformational and charismatic leadership styles contain the ability to develop a compelling and powerful vision for a project.

In a related perspective, the Project Management Institute (PMI) argues that it is beneficial for executive sponsors to perform a self-evaluation of their skills (to be read in the broader context of leadership styles, attributes and traits). By inference, the authors deduce that this self-evaluation should be performed very early in the “allocation of the sponsor to the project” action. This deduction is based on the statement in PMI that the self-evaluation is even more valuable if the sponsor has a very good appreciation of sponsor requirements. This creates an opportunity for sponsors to focus on those skills in which they are strong. For skills that the sponsor lacks, the assistance of specialists should be obtained.

Conclusion

The paper confirms that the executive sponsor on a megaproject is primarily a leader who requires the ability to put into words and feelings a viable and inspiring vision, and then ensures that the project remains synchronised with the strategy of the business organisation.

Leadership theories can be used to identify instruments that can help to assess the leadership style and leader attributes and traits of a sponsor. The styles of transformational and charismatic leadership seem to be the most appropriate for megaproject sponsors. Both the transformational and charismatic leadership styles contain the ability to develop a compelling and powerful vision for a project. The measurement instruments referred to as the MLQ Form 5X and the LBI can be used to determine the leadership style of a designated sponsor.

  • Find the original journal article here: Louw, W., Wium, J., Steyn, H., & Gevers, W. (2018). The megaproject sponsor as leader. South African Journal of Industrial Engineering, 29(November), 173-187. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7166/29-3-2058
  • Willem Louw is from the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
  • Prof Jan Wium is from the Department of Civil Engineering, Stellenbosch University.
  • Prof Herman Steyn is from the Department of Engineering and Technology Management, University of Pretoria.
  • Prof Wim Gevers lectures at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

Featured articles

Dec 09

21 minutes to read

Using futures studies to help ...
Dec 09

24 minutes to read

What does it take to lead toda...

Join the USB community

Receive updates on the latest news, events, business knowledge and blogs at USB.

SUBSCRIBE NOW


Can leaders commit moral treason?

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

Can leaders commit moral treason?

  • Prof Piet Naudé
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Features, Leadership

10 minutes to read

SHARE

Prof Piet Naudé
Director: University of Stellenbosch Business School
 

Repeated calls are made that – in the light of Zuma and the Guptas – politicians should act and vote ‘according to their conscience’. And with organisations such as KPMG being exposed, companies are asked to reconsider their links ‘in the light of their conscience’.

Con-science, which literally means with knowledge, has evolved to mean knowledge of one’s innermost thoughts and intentions. Later the meaning further narrowed to an inner sense of right and wrong that governs one’s thoughts, attitudes and actions.

It is supposed that all people have this faculty of moral insight on a personal level. A group of people in a close-knit community also develops a supra-individual or communal conscience, i.e. a sense of what is right and wrong, and what is morally (un-)acceptable in the context of that specific community. A whole nation may develop a shared sense of conscience. And, at times, one may even speak about a global conscience, referring to purported universally shared moral convictions.

Once I repeat that initial ‘wrong’ action a few times, my conscience adjusts to a new moral orientation.

How good a moral guide is one’s personal conscience?
The answer is simple: Not a very good one.

Firstly, my conscience is the product of a socio-moral formation process and that process may be flawed. I am not born with a conscience. I develop one via the varied, messy, and often contradictory influences of parents, friends, teachers, religion, mass media, politics, history and culture. The outcome of a ‘good’ conscience is therefore not guaranteed. People differ. And not everybody is ‘right’ or morally intelligent.

Secondly, the inner voice of my conscience is easily quietened. When I ‘do something wrong’ for the first time, it might bother me. Once I repeat that initial ‘wrong’ action a few times, my conscience adjusts to a new moral orientation. What was wrong yesterday, is accepted as morally normal today.

Thirdly, I cannot guarantee one hundred per cent that I will in each instance listen to my conscience and not occasionally simply overrule my sense of right and wrong. Many good people, overestimating the power of their convictions, took a hard knock when they cheated on their partner (‘things just developed …’) or accepted a bribe (‘the tender was crucial for the employment of my people …’).

… the collective conscience … evolves over time. There were times when slavery was widely deemed morally acceptable.

But can we not trust our collective conscience?
Here the answer is yes and no. It depends.

The answer is no for at least two reasons: Firstly, when a collective conscience is trapped in an ideology – national socialism, apartheid, fossil fuel economy – all people sharing that conscience might honestly think they are right and good. I grew up in a white collective conscience where racism and sexism were socially approved and promoted. Only after the moral lie of the system has been unmasked (and a lot of damage has been done), can new moral insight arise.

A whole nation might be wrong.

Secondly, the collective conscience is not static but evolves over time. There were times when slavery was widely deemed morally acceptable. Today it is hopefully seen as wrong by most people.

As our collective insight grows, the ‘slavery’ of today – trans-sexual adoption rights, patenting genetic information, the privacy of big data and the commodification of everything, which we cannot yet ‘see’ as morally wrong – may dawn upon us as morally unacceptable tomorrow.

The whole global community might be wrong. (Think climate change before 1960.)

And when moral incoherence and systemic corruption set in… those in power commit moral treason against the nation.

Regaining a collective moral conscience
But there is a sense in which the collective moral conscience does indeed provide fairly trusted guidance. This happens when moral convictions are codified in rites of passage and in good customs and are captured in a code of law supported by a constitution in which the ultimate rules of society are expressed.

This represents a move from subjective and quite varied moral convictions to more ‘objective’ rules guiding our collective moral formation, attitudes and actions.

There is obviously no automatic guarantee that people and leaders will respect the codified collective conscience. But at least they and we have a point of reference about which there is – for now – sufficient moral consensus to build a national ethic.

That is why a misuse of political and financial power to erode, undermine, dodge, ridicule or suspend our collective moral consensus is such a serious issue. Much more than a particular mis-deed, this spirit of impunity destroys the very foundation upon which a sense of collective moral coherence is built.

And when moral incoherence and systemic corruption set in, aided by the undermining of institutions designed to protect our consensus, those in power commit moral treason against the nation. Perhaps this is the key legacy of the Zuma presidency. But unfortunately, no law makes provision for a charge of moral treason.

To rebuild a junk-status economy is tough, and it might take five to seven years. To regain moral coherence and a collective conscience requires a change of leadership and a generation of collective effort.

Prof Piet Naudé is the Director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School where he lectures in ethics related to politics, economics and business. He holds an MA in Philosophy (cum laude) and a doctoral degree in Systematic Theology from Stellenbosch University.

Featured articles

Dec 09

21 minutes to read

Using futures studies to help ...
Dec 09

24 minutes to read

What does it take to lead toda...

Join the USB community

Receive updates on the latest news, events, business knowledge and blogs at USB.

SUBSCRIBE NOW


Rationalising corruption

Rationalising corruption: Did the devil make you do it?

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

Rationalising corruption: Did the devil make you do it?

Rationalising corruption

  • Prof Mias de Klerk
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Features, Leadership

22 minutes to read

SHARE

Article written by Prof Mias de Klerk
Head: Research, USB

Former captain of the South African national cricket team, Hansie Cronjé, was not the first and will most probably not be the last to offer ‘The devil made me do it’ as defence when admitting guilt or justifying involvement in corruption.

Blaming the devil is a popular justification to diffuse responsibility and explain away lowering standards by misusing power or resources for personal or organisational gain. In many instances the offence is committed by those whom we regard as people with integrity – people that we respect and see as the least likely to engage with ill-doing.

The psychological pathway to fraud leaves otherwise law-abiding people to rationalise their corrupt actions to such an extent that it allows them to continue with these practices without being stopped by the pains of conscience.

To deal effectively with corruption, potentially avoiding it ourselves or reducing such instances in our organisations, we need to understand and become conscious of the unconscious motives and needs that rationalisation satisfies.

It is thus a … an illusion that corruption is only committed by people who lack integrity, self-control, have low levels of morality or character flaws – this is a latent potential in all of us.

The art of corruption
Corruption is inherently a behavioural issue with all forms of corruption involving people who commit fraud, bribery, embezzlement, nepotism, cronyism and cheating, and engage in conflict of interest to gain an inappropriate advantage.

However, corruption is not possible without having the opportunity to commit corruption and to somehow conceal it from a place of power, authority or trust. Although one can limit the opportunity for corruption through formal controls, there is an illusion of control, misleading managers into believing everything can be controlled. But the act of corruption is far more complex than just controls. Controls are never perfect, and corrupt managers can take advantage of organisational deficiencies with their expert knowledge and power to influence.

Many perpetrators experience pressure to commit corruption, whether these are financial, non-financial, rational or subjective irrational pressures that made them consider and take part in corruption. If both opportunity and pressure for corruption exist, it becomes deceptively easy to justify corruption through rationalisation. Rationalisation is an attempt to acquit or indemnify oneself from the transgression. As such, it becomes a facilitator of corruption in that it neutralises feelings of ethical anxiety, justifies corrupt activities before the crime to forestall guilt and retrospectively to ease misgivings about the behaviour.

The unconscious as the proverbial iceberg
Much of our human experience is split off from consciousness and relegated to the unconscious. Although they both influence our behaviour, much of the mental activity that powers (im-)moral behaviour lies below the surface in the unconscious mind, hidden from conscious awareness.

Freud’s views offer perspectives to understand the unconscious and its potential influence on rationalised corruption. According to Freud the human psyche consists of the id, ego and superego. The id refers to the unconscious part of the mind, which is irrational, instinctual and amoral. The ego refers to the cognitive part of the psyche and conscious awareness, while the superego refers to an idealised fantasy of what one can be or ought to be and a desire to see one self as moral. The ego mediates between the desires of the id and the aspirations of the superego, striving to be moral but the drives of the id easily convert our best intentions into unethical acts.

Psychoanalytical theory views people as complex individuals with unique emotional and fantasy lives and developing identities rooted in diverse past experience. However, even rational acts could often be fuelled by an emotional or irrational agenda. Irrational behaviour that is in conflict with conscious intentions and moral ideations is quite normal and not necessarily pathological. Psychoanalytic theory provides plausible explanations of irrational corruptions.

As human beings we are not as ethical as we imagine; we tend to overestimate our morality. Freud describes the relentless internal conflict between good and bad as the ‘tragic fate of humanity’ and it is this very fallibility that makes us human. Jung argues that integrity does not mean being always good, but that it requires the ability to doubt ourselves with the courage to confront our hypocrisy.

As morally conflicted beings we are naturally capable of doing both good and evil, and are prone to succumb to temptation. It is thus a form of denial and an illusion that corruption is only committed by people who lack integrity, self-control, have low levels of morality or character flaws – this is a latent potential in all of us. And it is within this very reality that otherwise law-abiding individuals can become corrupt and employ rationalisation in the belief that it can indemnify them or redeem their corrupt acts.

They use projection to get rid of moral accountability and anxiety, thereby neutralising any emotions of guilt and shame.

The six devils within
We need to become conscious of our unconscious processes and skilled in the ease with which we unconsciously motivate corrupt actions in order to be more in control of our ethical behaviour. Without an understanding of the unconscious motives, appreciation of the gap between good intentions and rationalised corruption remains too wide. Too often individuals are engaged in questionable behaviours that are inconsistent with their own values and ethical believes. Unpacking the following six motives of how offenders believe that rationalisation acquits or indemnifies them, or redeems their corrupt behaviour, provides a better understanding of why and how apparently good and ethical people can become corrupt.

Acquittal of personal accountability – denying personal responsibility for the ethical transgression or transferring it elsewhere. Transgressors use this motive to, for example, blame a transgression on circumstances beyond their control, rationalising to be situational victims without control over their own actions, shifting responsibility to another person, such as management, or diffusing responsibility with excuses such as ‘everybody does it’. In this process, offenders reframe their behaviour as arising from causes where they are only innocent bystanders. They use projection to get rid of moral accountability and anxiety, thereby neutralising any emotions of guilt and shame.

In many instances, individuals cannot be corrupt on their own since, say, bribery requires a corrupt briber and bribee. Through repressive justification, transgressors negate their roles in corrupt acts to being merely innocent bystanders, rather than active participants. For example, evasive governmental corruption creates the phantasy that the bribee can indemnified by arguing: ‘I had no choice. If one does not pay a bribe one cannot get this done.’ However, both parties are equally involved and gain some advantage with victims only found outside of the corrupt behaviour.

Projection of blame or blameworthiness can also be towards abstract constructs such as the devil to deny one’s own evil, in order to emotionally disengage and distance oneself from personal accountability, ridding oneself from the badness within, allowing the offender to claim innocence at the mercy of this devil.

It is hardly surprising that projecting blame for corrupt acts onto a senior manager is a common phenomenon. Corrupt behaviour is routinely sanctioned, condoned or implicitly ordered by an authority figure, making the participation by the subordinate seem legitimate and even desirable. Leadership that ignores, condones or reinforces corruption is a prime contributor to corrupt acts. Individuals seldom identify with management’s talk, but rather view values through the personal example and persuasive acts of top management.

Freud noted the destructive consequences when a subordinate puts a leader in the place of the superego. Although the superego is capable of using authority to prevent unethical behaviour, it is prone to be overpowered by the leader. A leader’s example and expectations leads to significant pressure from the hierarchical relationship, creating a breeding ground for corrupt behaviour. Subsequently, corrupt leaders can hold subordinates captive to their corrupt desires, being unaware of the extent to which their decisions influence others, and unconsciously coerce and pressure subordinates into corruption.

Senior leaders often authorise corruption implicitly. Subordinates are expected to execute all instructions rather than second-guess them, leaving employees weak when confronted with obstinate authority. Lower level employees are expected to carry out managers’ plans on their behalf, affording executives the luxury to abuse power and enact corruption, yet still claim ignorance and avoid unpleasant emotions by denying their own role, projecting guilt and blame onto the subordinates as if they had no influence on the deed.

Leadership sets the norms of behaviour, and ethics is driven by both direct and indirect signals from leaders about what is really important. Honest employees can be seduced into corruption through subtle suggestions of ‘do whatever it takes’ to achieve a certain goal. Both the manager, who knows what the suggestion could lead to, and the subordinate who acts as if he or she has no choice, play active roles in the unspoken conspiracy. By denying their own role in the corruption, managers project blame onto subordinates as if they had nothing to do with the corrupt act, claiming they never gave inappropriate instructions. On the other hand, due to their psychological dependency on their leaders, many subordinates will shift the blame onto their managers, while denial provides them with the excuse of being a victim.

Consequentialist redemption – where offenders attempt to minimise the consequences of their deeds through denial of injury (claiming no one was hurt or damaged, so no real harm was caused), and denial of a victim suffering because of it, or comparing their actions to more extreme forms with worse outcomes.

This implies that questionable and corrupt acts can be rationalised to be acceptable as long as the consequences perceivably do not hurt anyone. This in turn facilitates emotional disengagement and neutralises guilt and anxiety. It is easier to deny injury when the injury is not visible and when the victim remains faceless. When the victim is projected to be a powerful entity who can afford the cost of the crime, corruption is framed to be victimless (i.e. the victim can afford it), enabling perpetrators to disengage emotionally and becoming morally blind. Examples include trading counterfeit goods, tax evasion, fraud and insider trading. The delusion of this motive lies in the fact that corruption is never without victims – those harmed are just not aware that they have been victimised.

Individuals seldom identify with management’s talk, but rather view values through the personal example and persuasive acts of top management.

Deontological redemption – where wrongdoers justify their behaviour or acts rather than the consequences by arguing that a corrupt deed is technically not illegal according to the law and therefore acceptable, regardless of moral implications, or they claim ignorance or ‘grey’ zones in legislation, and even justify their behaviour as an unavoidable part of business practices.

Some corrupt acts are not necessarily illegal, yet border on the fringes of morality, for example tax evasion by setting up a front office in a tax-friendly country. In many countries, payment of facilitation fees (to speed up administrative processes) is strictly not illegal. However, this lures corrupt officials to demand facilitation payments and other parties into making such payments, producing an act of corruption.

Narcissistic indemnity – where offenders claim entitlement to certain rights and believe that they deserve more, that they have accrued credits that can be offset against the acts and have a perceived specialness. These beliefs overpower their moral capacity. Leaders need a healthy dose of narcissism to be successful, in other words, traits such as drive, charisma and self-assurance. However, narcissistic traits such as entitlement, grandiosity, arrogance, hubris and self-absorption are dysfunctional, likely to present a moral liability which can seriously impede morality.

But it is not so much the narcissistic personality that is linked to rationalised corruption. Rather, it is the accompanying unconscious dynamics. Rationalised corruption is a crime of entitlement, committed by those who cannot fathom that they are part of a wider community, with the fantasy that they are elevated to levels above the rest of society and more deserving than others. Fantasies of specialness can push talented individuals to greatness. However, the frustration of such dreams can lead to acute psychological pressure, leading for some to an increased urgency to accomplish these goals, fuelling opportunistic corruption under narcissistic illusions of indemnity. Lack of restraint makes narcissists regard themselves to be above the laws that apply to others and to be beyond questioning.

These narcissistic tendencies spill over to the rest of the organisation and followers unconsciously, but purposefully so, collude with narcissistic leaders because of their own unmet dependency needs. This manifests as unconditional following and obedience. To many subordinates, a senior leader becomes a god-like figure or imaginary parental figure who has to be pleased to win favour and gain recognition from, leaving them too paranoid to challenge the leader’s corrupt behaviour. This dynamic entices powerful narcissists to abuse their symbolic status and to delude followers to buy into corrupt behaviour.

Sacrosanct indemnity – providing justification that usually accepted norms can be or have to be sacrificed to realise higher order values, for instance: ‘I’m protecting the company’, or ‘It’s for a good cause’, indemnifying the cause and anything related to moral scrutiny.

Even a recommendable but overinflated organisational ideal can result in delusions that could bolster corruption. Inflated organisational narcissism offers managers a sense of purpose beyond reality and perceived protection through sacrosanct indemnity, justifying that an exemplary cause or idea is beyond questioning and sacrosanct. Once the individual believes that he or she is protected by sacrosanct indemnity, there is a lack of association with the corrupt consequences, and moral disengagement ensues. Excessive beliefs of moral righteousness develop and ideals are pursued through extreme alternatives under a fallacy of being morally sanctioned. The hideous aspects of the self is projected onto others and fantasies of specialness and entitlement are boosted.

Corruption scandals often occur in the pursuit of a sacrosanct cause, involving leaders instructing corrupt acts under the auspices of ensuring company survival. Subordinates tend to follow an authoritative figure’s directions unquestionably, even if unethical. The combination of sacrosanct indemnity (leader claiming survival of the company) and denial accountability by subordinates (‘I was instructed and did not have a choice’), perceived pressure and projecting blame onto each other feeds an unspoken conspiracy to be corrupt without moral confrontation.

During group formation, the synthesis of individuals produce an entity with its own moral identity. The stronger the ideals that bind a group, the more powerful the (un-)ethical sentiments that may rise out of them. The stronger the organisational ideal the more intense the members experience pressure to live up to such idealisations. Idolised ideals accentuate beliefs of specialness and advance group narcissism, with the pressure and efforts to protect identity from becoming fixated on relieving anxiety to contrary reality. Although a healthy degree of shared narcissism provides a sense of belonging among members, when exaggerated, it makes group members preoccupied with an illusion of superiority, entitlement, denial and rationalisation. This entitlement provides group members with beliefs that the group has a right to possess or do whatever they desire and want, entrapping members to become morally blind to their corrupt actions aimed at upholding the organisational ideal.

Extreme forms of organisational narcissism can harm organisations when rational decision making is replaced. This especially likely when groups unconsciously split themselves off between in-groups and out-groups, whereby the former regard themselves and whatever they do as good and superior, protecting corruption as superior attributes with strong rivalry against the out-group enemy. Under such a spell, the toxic combination of dehumanisation, depersonalisation, projection and denial is deployed effectively to justify sometimes lethal corruption. Examples include Hitler portraying the Jewish community as the enemy and as subhuman, rallying most of Germany to morally disengage from the atrocities of genocide in support of his corrupt practices. Closer to home, referring to black people as ‘the black threat’ has emotionally disengaged white South Africans from the injustices and promotion of the apartheid government for many years.

Honest employees can be seduced into corruption through subtle suggestions of ‘do whatever it takes’ to achieve a certain goal.

Intentional indemnity – where offenders typically argue that they did not mean any harm or mischief and that they plan to pay back or fix the fraud at some time in the future, creating self-deceiving delusions of indemnity.

We tend to judge others on their actual behaviour since we cannot see their intentions, whereas we judge our own acts on the intentions behind the acts. Even when these intentions are not always good and worthy, we tend to judge our intentions positively through self-deception (unconsciously lying to ourselves to alleviate guilt or anxiety). Self-deception prevents access to confronting moral emotions, distorting reality when the act is too appalling to acknowledge.

Self-serving deception selectively accesses certain information and denies other information to maintain an enlarged self-image, lying to oneself in various ways to protect the fantasies of the ego-ideal. Through repression, offenders actively move and keep unwanted emotions out of conscious awareness, arguing that the corrupt act was a loan that they will pay back as soon as the necessary funds become available. Another way is to euphemistically label the corrupt act to make it sound better (e.g. referring to fraud as borrowing), convincing oneself that the corrupt behaviour does not violate moral standards in the slightest.

Becoming watchful of the devils within
Even though the development and advancement of morality in managers is in abundance, corruption is still rife. Corruption is a fact of life and it has caused several large and powerful organisations to collapse, while others suffer significant profit losses. Corruption is imposing a huge burden on society by adding around 20% to 100% to the cost of goods.

Many involved in corruption convince themselves and others that they are not corrupt and that their acts are justified and even acceptable. And it is this urge to unconsciously rationalise actions – based on a need to find a psychological pardon and justification, achieved through self-convincing beliefs of acquittal – that can lead otherwise law-abiding citizens with moral intentions to corruption.

As individuals and managers we can only work with those dynamics and devils that we have become consciously aware of. Although this is not a panacea that will eliminate rationalised corruption, at least it puts managers in a somewhat better position to be in control of these dynamics and devils.

Another way is to euphemistically label the corrupt act to make it sound better (e.g. referring to fraud as borrowing), convincing oneself that the corrupt behaviour does not violate moral standards …

  • Original article: De Klerk, JJ. 2017. ‘The Devil Made Me Do It!’ An Inquiry Into the Unconscious ‘Devils Within’ of Rationalized Corruption. Journal of Management Inquiry, 26(3), 254-269.
  • Link to original article: https://doi.org/10.1177/1056492617692101

Prof Mias de Klerk is a professor in Human Capital Management and Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, where he also holds the position as Head of Research. His research interests include system psychodynamics and unconscious processes, behavioural aspects of business ethics, emotions in organisations, change, transformation and change emotions, existentialism, meaning and spirituality in organisations.

Featured articles

Dec 09

21 minutes to read

Using futures studies to help ...
Dec 09

24 minutes to read

What does it take to lead toda...

Join the USB community

Receive updates on the latest news, events, business knowledge and blogs at USB.

SUBSCRIBE NOW


integrity

Reconsidering integrity and vulnerability as leadership selection criteria

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January -June 2018

Reconsidering integrity and vulnerability as leadership selection criteria

  • Jantes Prinsloo
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Features, Leadership

18 minutes to read

SHARE

Article written by USB MBA alumnus Jantes Prinsloo

Say you need to appoint a leader in your organisation. What are the things you would typically look for in today’s turbulent environment? Capability, character, charisma? Hiring a competent person with questionable character can be more damaging than hiring a less competent person with moral character.

Leaders are often selected based on their charisma, personality or technical competence. However, neither the seduction of charisma, presence of a strong personality or the reassurance of technical excellence will guarantee the morality of a leader; therefore, moral character might be a key selection criterion for leaders. One would think that integrity is an obvious measure, but it is evident from the various leadership failures across organisations and in the political arena that virtuousness, or the presence of moral character, is not necessarily used as a key selection criterion for leaders.

Character is acknowledged as an essential leadership attribute. The character of leaders is something which is often taken for granted, with society expecting good leaders to be strong in character and to have a moral imperative to their actions. The character of a leader consists of core traits or virtues – such as integrity, trust, truth and human dignity – which influence the leader’s vision, ethics and behaviour. An obvious illustration of a leader who was a blend of experience, stewardship and character is Nelson Mandela. His view of leadership was based on the African concept of Ubuntu – the deep sense that we are human only through the humanity of others.

Various researchers have since shown that a deep consideration of others or living for others indicates the presence of moral leadership. Leadership, like stewardship, means service over self-interest. It can then be argued that leaders who do what they do for something larger than themselves have an awareness of their moral responsibility.

The notion that integrity is essential for effective leadership is widely held in leadership research. Some researchers say integrity is about the consistency of the leader’s words and actions. However, integrity without complementing character virtues can produce leaders who are inflexible and stubborn, with an inability to receive feedback and input from others. So, integrity alone is not enough.

Integrity and vulnerability have been measured in various forms and in terms of other character virtues. Researchers such as McKenna and Campbell (2011) positioned integrity and vulnerability as opposite but possibly complementary character traits in their character model which emphasises character awareness as a potential indicator of good or moral leaders. However, no literature could be found where these two character traits are explicitly measured as a pair of adjunctive constructs.

It is against this background that the combination of integrity and vulnerability as a filter for good leadership has been investigated. The basic premise is that integrity as a function of leadership character should always be in healthy tension with vulnerability. Therefore, this study aimed to determine the influence of integrity and vulnerability – in isolation and in combination – on leadership selection at a corporate consulting firm.

Here, vulnerability does not mean sharing every emotion, concern and doubt with everyone you meet or being emotionally fragile. Rather, it is about being open to the ideas of others, accepting uncertain states and recognising your own limitations. Sharing vulnerability is an exercise of retrospection and self-awareness which requires individuals to objectively view their own behaviour. This definition of vulnerability – and especially in its position opposite but contributing to integrity – is similar to the constructs of self-awareness in authentic leadership theory, as well as the cardinal virtue of temperance, which requires self-knowledge in order to understand and accept one’s own shortcomings.

Hiring a competent person with questionable character can be more damaging than hiring a less competent person with moral character.

How was the study conducted?
The primary data of this study was gathered by means of an experiment, commonly associated with causal research designs. A factorial design experiment was used to assess leadership selection criteria by manipulating the two leadership virtues of integrity and vulnerability through fictitious leader profiles to assess their influence in leader selection. This generated four leader profiles:

  • Leader profile 000: low levels of integrity and vulnerability
  • Leader profile 001: low levels of integrity and high levels of vulnerability
  • Leader profile 010: high levels of integrity and low levels of vulnerability
  • Leader profile 011: high levels of integrity and high levels of vulnerability.

The respondents were each given one of four scenarios built around Jack, a pseudo mid-level manager in a global organisation undergoing various structural and operational changes. The four scenarios represented the four leadership profiles. The leader profiles included adjunctive or discreet definitions for integrity and vulnerability as the understanding of discreet virtues is more consistent than for substantive virtues. Substantive virtues tend to include various virtues. All the leader profiles presented technical capability and likeability (charisma) with vulnerability and integrity manipulated. The respondents then had to rate Jack’s integrity and vulnerability on a five-point Likert scale. Next, descriptive statistical analysis was used to obtain an understanding of the sample group’s demographics and their perceptions of the relevant importance of integrity and vulnerability in leaders.

More about integrity as critical character virtue
The notion that integrity is essential for moral and effective leadership is widely held in leadership research. Surprisingly though, leader integrity has received little attention in management and organisational psychology literature. It has only recently been developed as a construct for academic research.

Various leadership theories refer to a conceptual link between integrity and leadership. Transformational leadership, ethical leadership, spiritual leadership and authentic leadership all include integrity as an element of their respective theories, but these theories do not explain how integrity functions in terms of important consequences of leadership such as trust and job performance.

A number of researchers have compared the relevant importance of integrity with other leadership traits and found that integrity rated the highest. The term integrity also enjoys great popularity in company mission and values statements. In an examination of 80 exemplary ethics statements, integrity was the most frequently mentioned value.

Integrity and other character traits
How does one measure integrity? When individuals rate their leaders on scales of ethics or virtues, or on any other ‘good-bad/positive-negative’ dimension, there is a tendency to make a summary judgement of whether the leader is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. This overall judgement clouds the ability to make finer distinctions.

Integrity is seen as an adjunctive virtue (a virtue which is neither morally good nor morally bad in and of itself, but is necessary for achieving moral uprightness) that should coexist with other (adjunctive and substantive) virtues to contribute to the holistic evaluation of someone’s character. This view is supported by researchers such as McKenna and Campbell (2011) who highlighted the need to view character virtues as interdependent, interconnected and each as necessary but not satisfactory on its own. In their character model, they suggested awareness of one’s integrity and the willingness to be vulnerable with a focus on the decision-making process as a possible indicator of a moral leader.

Behavioural integrity on its own can produce rigid and stubborn leaders with an inability to receive criticism and feedback from others. Also, some researchers say there is nothing inherently ethical about vulnerability as some narcissistic leaders may use their vulnerability or charisma manipulatively to achieve individual rather than collective outcomes.

Some researchers suggested that leaders with moral character are relatively accurate in their self-awareness compared to self-focused leaders who tend to overrate their demonstration of moral habits relative to the ratings of their employees. Some scholars have argued that only virtuous persons could accurately judge the virtues of self and others. A lack of self-awareness can make self-focused leaders vulnerable to considerable self-deception, ultimately harming the performance of their businesses and, in some cases, endangering the firm’s survival. Based on this argument, it could be suggested that leaders who are self-focused instead of self-aware lack vulnerability as a key character trait.

It can therefore be argued that integrity, as a character trait, is required to unlock the value of vulnerability, and vice versa.

… neither the seduction of charisma, presence of a strong personality or the reassurance of technical excellence will guarantee the morality of a leader

What did the study find?

What this study further found is that vulnerability (in isolation) is not an attractive character virtue in terms of leadership selection, while simultaneously confirming that integrity (in isolation) is an attractive character virtue. However, the most significant contribution was the indication that the combination of integrity and vulnerability (instead of the virtues in isolation) is indeed more desirable in leadership selection and that it indicates the presence of moral character.

Neither one of these character virtues on its own necessarily has an ethical or moral imperative, but the presence of both integrity and vulnerability can help to identify effective and ethical leaders. Therefore, we need to reconsider how we go about selecting these leaders to improve our chances of being led by individuals with moral character.

 

The responses for the four leader profiles were averaged per question and the means of these questions are presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The four leader profiles in terms of integrity and vulnerability

The leader profile with high levels of integrity as well as vulnerability scored highest on all questions/statements, except on being self-focused. In contrast, this is the aspect (being self-focused) on which the profile with low integrity and low vulnerability scored the highest. It is also worth noting that this is the aspect (being self-focused) on which the two low vulnerability profiles scored the highest. The perceived absence of focus on the self explains much of the strength that vulnerability brings to the preferred leadership profiles. Question 6 inquired into the ‘likeability’ of the leaders in these scenarios. It is interesting that the profile with low integrity but high levels of vulnerability also rated high on ‘likeability’. Question 7 inquired into the ‘perceived presence of moral character’ of the leaders in these scenarios and here the two high-integrity profiles rated highest. The difference that vulnerability makes in terms of perceived self-awareness was clear from Question 10. Both profiles with high vulnerability (even with low integrity) scored considerably higher than the others in terms of perceived self-awareness. These findings strengthen the argument that vulnerability is required to unlock the value of integrity, and vice versa.

The leader profile with low levels of both integrity and vulnerability (000) is the least attractive. When comparing the two middle profiles, the leader profile with low levels of integrity in combination with high levels of vulnerability (001) is more attractive than the leader profile with high levels of integrity and low levels of vulnerability (010). In essence, this is what the study found:

  • Vulnerability on its own: This study found that vulnerability (in isolation) is not perceived as an attractive character virtue in leadership selection. Although vulnerability, as an attractive character virtue in leaders, is receiving much attention in the popular press, no academic research could be found that assessed whether vulnerability is indeed an attractive character virtue in terms of leadership selection. One can argue that followers interpret vulnerability (in isolation) as a weakness in leaders, especially in the absence of ‘strong’ character traits such as courage and integrity.
  • Integrity on its own: Integrity (in isolation) is perceived as an attractive character virtue in leadership selection, which is widely supported in leadership research. Based on the results of this study, it is agreed that integrity is an important and attractive character trait for leadership selection. However, it can also be argued that when integrity (in isolation) is used as a leadership selection criterion, it may result in leaders who are rigid, change-averse and not fit for a fast-changing environment.

The combination of integrity and vulnerability: This combination seemed more desirable than any of the virtues in isolation. Some researchers have argued that integrity may be a vital, but not adequate, component of good character. Integrity without complementary character virtues might produce leaders who are inflexible and stubborn, with an inability to receive feedback and input from others. On the other hand, vulnerability without complementary character virtues can produce leaders who are inconsistent, without principles and directionless. This study therefore evaluated the combination of vulnerability and integrity against each virtue in isolation and found that the combination is significantly more attractive. So, this study supports the argument that each of the virtues are vital, but inadequate on their own.

… vulnerability seems to be the driver in terms of leader attractiveness and integrity the driver in terms of the perceived presence of moral character

Conclusion

It is clear that the presence of vulnerability increases the leader’s attractiveness, but only when combined with integrity. It is evident that leader attractiveness is highest for the leader profile with high levels of both integrity and vulnerability, compared to the other leader profiles. When comparing the virtues in isolation, vulnerability seems to be the driver in terms of leader attractiveness and integrity the driver in terms of the perceived presence of moral character.

Based on this finding, it can be argued that leaders with both integrity and vulnerability tend to be curious, responsive and reflective in their thinking and open to possibilities and change. Hence, this study supports the arguments of various researchers that integrity in combination with vulnerability indicates the perceived presence of moral character.

Sharing vulnerability is an exercise of retrospection and self-awareness that requires individuals to turn an objective eye on their own behaviour. Therefore, a practical recommendation is for companies to invest in self-awareness training for their leaders, allowing these individuals to develop the character trait of vulnerability.

When we select leaders for the future, we need to reconsider the selection process of these leaders to improve our chances of being led by individuals with moral character. Based on the findings of this study, it is suggested that to be able to lead ethically and effectively, leaders should have an awareness of self and their character composition, especially regarding integrity and vulnerability.

  • Original MBA research assignment: Prinsloo, J. 2017. Reconsidering integrity and vulnerability as leadership selection criteria. Unpublished MBA research assignment. Bellville: University of Stellenbosch Business School. Study leader: Prof JJ de Klerk.
  • USB Top Achievers’ Awards 2018: Jantes Prinsloo received USB’s Top Achiever’s Award for the Best Research Assignment in any 2017 Master’s Degree.

Featured articles

Dec 09

21 minutes to read

Using futures studies to help ...
Dec 09

24 minutes to read

What does it take to lead toda...

Join the USB community

Receive updates on the latest news, events, business knowledge and blogs at USB.

SUBSCRIBE NOW