Why Some Bosses Dislike Challenge

I finished my explanation of why it can be hard to 'speak truth to power' by wondering whether very senior officials could not have done more to persuade their political masters and mistresses to take more sensible decisions. In their defence, of course, it has to be recognised that some senior executives and politicians can be very difficult clients. Here are some thoughts about why that is.

Power, status …

... they both inevitably change our behaviour and then our characters.  I was amused by an actor who recounted her interactions with a runner on her first film set:-

Day 1 – “No, no.  I couldn’t possibly ask you to fetch me a coffee.  I’ll get my own.  And would you like one too?”

Day 2 – “That’s very kind of you.  A flat white, please.”

Day 3 – “Where’s my goddam coffee!”

Their power and status certainly isolate those in the executive suite, and Ministers and senior officials, from ordinary people.  And it isolates them even more from their front line staff and their concerns.  It’s not just that they are shielded by their colleagues and their civil servants.  They have to take decisions in the greater good – including resourcing decisions – that will damage individuals.  And the more senior you get, the more challenging the decisions.  Many lose empathy with those they will hurt.  The best do not.

The scale of many organisations' operations and responsibilities mean that their leaders have to think in very abstract terms. The problems of an individual employee or voter can then appear quite inconsequential given the beauty of the wider concept. They may for instance have to cut the numbers or quality of staff to stay within budget limits which they have been required to accept. They cannot afford to lose sleep over yet another factory accident, or another death in a Liverpool jail, or yet another family facing penury because of an incompetent disability assessment, or yet another hunger strike in Yarls Wood immigration removal centre, or child waiting in A&E for 6 days, awaiting a mental health bed.

(Ministers' detachment from the consequences of their decisions raises the question of the role of the civil service in implementing those decisions. Follow this link if you want to know whether civil servants must always obey orders.)

And it's worth stressing that the problem summarised above to some extent affects senior people in almost every organisation, including Permanent Secretaries and other senior officials. One could hardly be an effective army officer if you were not to some extent indifferent to the suffering that might be experienced by your troops, let alone the suffering of your enemy. Another example was after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans when a huge crowd of mostly black and poor people descended on the convention centre and the Head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist". A more accurate comment might have been that "We're seeing people that we didn't realise we were supposed to care about".

Also, and again like most senior executives in large organisations, senior people have learned to compromise and to adopt the organisation’s views as their own.  You certainly do not get into a boardroom, or the Cabinet, by being the odd one out, always questioning one’s superiors. It follows that sensible and politically or ethically wise advice might not trump career ambitions or loyalty to a political cause. John Crace puts it rather more strongly in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden:

MPs feel ‘that the normal rules don’t apply inside the Palace of Westminster; that the consistency they would expect from themselves and their colleagues in other areas of life can be put on hold. Politics is known as the art of compromise: a world where you rarely get everything you want and end up settling for a lot less. A world where conscience and beliefs are frequently moving targets to be traded for some notion of a greater public good.’

Ministers Face Particular Problems

And there are other reasons why Ministers - more than private sector leaders - find it hard to understand or accept challenging advice.

  • One is that the hard knocks of the political world have taught them that it is often better to assert infallibility. Any admission of doubt or error might be quoted against them for the rest of their political lives.
  • Few Ministers have any experience of managing large organisations. Operational risks are therefore often seen as quite minor obstacles, easily overcome if civil servants would only show the necessary energy, enthusiasm and initiative.
  • Some Ministers are also very charismatic – natural leaders in the best sense of the word.  Both they and their civil servants get very caught up in their mission, and this enthusiasm can lead to them all failing to think critically about where they are headed, and the likely obstacles along the road. 
  • It doesn't help that government departments inevitably focus on the power and influence of their Secretary of State, especially if that Minister has a high public profile. Senior officials will then all too often focus on their Minister's wishes, rather than think for themselves or commission analysis which might challenge their leader's views.
  • Even if they are not charismatic, a successful politician has to be an alpha male or female.  They all need public recognition in one form or another, and need to be able to survive and enjoy working in an environment that is full of conflict.

Most Ministers are therefore to some extent putting on an act. They would not survive if they did not have great confidence in their own judgement and opinions, and so they also often like having great ideas. The meek do not of course inherit the political earth. Few Prime or Cabinet Ministers can resist the temptation to announce some grand initiative well before they have thought through the detail, arranged the financing, and established a sensible timeline.  There is a particular temptation, of course, to adopt challenging timescales in order to claim credit before the next election – or at least so embed the change that it cannot be reversed. Sadly, all too few of them have taken on board Steve Jobs’ observation of the lunacy of thinking that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work. For examples, think David Cameron's Big Society, Iain Duncan-Smith's Universal Credit, and Brexit. They are not necessarily stupid ideas in themselves but they all ran into serious problems because Ministers' lack of experience led to there being no serious pre-announcement planning or consultation.


Many top executives and Ministers are naturally authoritarian.  They are less likely to

  • be able to put themselves in others’ shoes,
  • give full credit to an opponent’s ability (likely calling them stupid, feeble and/or evil),
  • accept criticism from below,
  • accept blame,
  • experiment,
  • reconnoitre,
  • learn from their own mistakes,
  • accept information or advice which challenges their beliefs and assumptions, and
  • be warm and sympathetic.

And they are more likely to …

  • have strong egos,
  • be vain (but lack true self-confidence),
  • be anti-intellectual,
  • emphasise the importance of obedience and loyalty,
  • take silence as consent, and
  • dislike those who are ‘odd’ or ‘different’ – including those from a different social, educational and ethnic background (which in the case of Ministers will include many officials).

Unfortunately for officials, Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes that ...

a discernible trait of authoritarian and autocratic rulers is ongoing “frustration” with the “inability to make others do their bidding” and with “institutional and bureaucratic procedures and checks and balances…. The blaming of others is very typical of autocrats, because they have difficulty listening to a reality that doesn’t coincide with their version of it. It’s part of the authoritarian temperament to blame others when things aren’t working.”

Authoritarianism also looms large in Professor Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence in which he argues that many military blunders may be attributed to the authoritarian psychology of certain military leaders – and to the failure of their subordinates to challenge them effectively (or at all). There are obvious lessons here for government. He defines authoritarians as those who …

are less likely to …  be able to put themselves in others’ shoes, give full credit to an opponent’s ability (likely calling them stupid, feeble and/or evil), accept criticism from below, accept blame, experiment, reconnoitre, learn from their own mistakes, accept information or advice which challenges their beliefs and assumptions, and be warm and sympathetic.

and are more likely to … have strong egos, be vain (but lack true self-confidence), blame a subordinate, be anti-intellectual, emphasise the importance of obedience and loyalty, take silence as consent, and dislike those who are ‘odd’ or ‘different’ – including those from a different social, educational and ethnic background


Michelle Roya Rad has written extensively about leaders with self-centred, psychopathic, narcissistic and/or Machiavellian personalities.  Their characteristics overlap with those of authoritarians  -see above.  She lists them as follows:-

  • They are arrogant and take too many measures to protect their self-image. Their universe is usually small, with statements that have too many “should”s and “must"s. They have idealist views, and a need to impose and make others believe that their universe is the better one. They will usually dislike you if you don’t buy into that.
  • They usually have a lot of friends, but just superficially. Their friendship is mostly about quantity not quality. They can be charming, but have an agenda. Their agenda is to find an ego feeder. They may have found ways to attract a lot of people into their world, but usually the ones who feed into their arrogance.
  • They are intolerant of differences. They devalue others and put them at a lesser position. They lack the ability to feel confidence internally, and instead find a sensation of superiority by seeing others as inferior.
  • In addition, they can’t see different viewpoints. They usually have points of views that are fixated and most of the time not valid, since they are usually the type who only reads the cover of the magazine to look smart, and then is opinioned about it. They may also harshly criticize others who don’t buy into their views.
  • They are unable to have long lasting relationships. For them, people are either very good or very bad, depending on who admires them and who does not. In other words, if you fulfill their wishes, you’re good. They can be your lover one minute and a hater the next.
  • They can’t feel a true sense of empathy.  Even if they do, it is usually conditional, depending on what they are receiving from the source they are empathizing with. .
  • “What is in it for me” goes too far. They expect too much for what they are willing to give. This is the type that thinks his government, society, people around him and the world owes it to him without him giving much in return.

Some Examples

There are probably very few senior leaders who display absolutely all of the above authoritarian ands self-centred traits,  and none who are totally free of all of them. Accepting blame (as distinct from changing one’s mind) does after all appear equivalent to committing business and political suicide. But it is not hard to think of a good number of strong characters who would score pretty highly in any test of authoritarianism and self-centredness. Donald Trump for a start, but maybe also Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson? Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would also score well, I imagine.

(Lifting our eyes across the Atlantic, for a moment, it is interesting that a Vox.com article noted that authoritarianism amongst American voters correlates strongly with support for Mr Trump. This is because, it is claimed, people who score high in authoritarianism value conformity and, when feeling threatened, turn to strong leaders who promise to do whatever is necessary “to protect them from outsiders and the changes they fear … Trump in turn embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive”).

There are of course plenty of authoritarian and self-centred leaders in the private sector.  Maybe one of the worst examples was RBS' Fred Goodwin whose acquisition of ABN Amro and other strategic errors led to the bank's collapse in 2008.  One subsequent report condemned the former chief executive’s aggressive, macho management style that created a culture where staff were locked in constant fear of losing their jobs, and his lieutenants were said to have stopped employees speaking out about problems.

Such characters also exist in fiction, of course ...

Up to a Point, Lord Copper

One of my favourite novels is Evelyn Waugh's Scoop featuring the newspaper magnate Lord Copper, a character so fearsome that his obsequious foreign editor, Mr Salter, can never openly disagree with him, answering "Definitely, Lord Copper" and "Up to a point, Lord Copper" in place of "yes" or "no". 

And Finally ...

To finish this part of the discussion, here is a comment from Professor Kakabadse who reports officials' views of Ministers in this way:- ...

Those Secretaries of State viewed as confident, rationalist and evidence driven were more favoured by the civil servants. These same Secretaries of States were reported as inviting comment and challenge, and of having a track record of sustained professional relationships. The most ‘difficult’ Secretaries of State were those seen to lack self-confidence, and as being overly sensitive to their surrounding circumstances. They were viewed as less likely to accept personal responsibility for decisions, especially when under pressure, and more likely to blame others, particularly the Permanent Secretary.

... together with an observation by Leo Tolstoy:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him."

Read on for a short discussion of how some organisations confer too much power on single individuals.


Martin Stanley


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