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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

How Bad People Rise to the Top

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If I had a list of Top 10 topics that people like to talk about in life, this one would undoubtedly be on it: How is it that jerks always seem to get ahead while nice guys finish last? In his book of the same name, Harold Kushner asked a similar question: Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People

Based on my observations of awful, corrupt leaders over the past 15 years or so, here are a few suggestions:

They have infinite ambition. You and I want to go home at the end of the day. We want to have a life, go to the movies, make art. We feel bad when our work commitments cut into our family time. But to a corrupt leader, the only thing that matters is getting the position they're after.

They lack emotional intelligence. You and I feel bad when we see somebody crying. But the corrupt leader either doesn't notice or doesn't know why they should care. They don't relate to other people.

They feel deprived of something they perceive as owed to them. You and I say to ourselves, we have to work for stuff in order to get it. And when we work hard and bad things happen, we maybe don't understand it, but we don't feel entitled either. But the corrupt leader perceives things differently. They've worked for it, or they should have had it all along, and if they don't get it the nice way then they're just going to take it.

They have no conscience. You and I feel bad when we do something wrong. But to a corrupt leader, the only thing that is "wrong" is something or someone that gets in their way.

They don't believe in universal justice. This is by no means a potshot at atheists, although I know it's going to sound like it. But the opposite of corruption is the belief that some sort of system of justice exists well outside of yourself. It doesn't mean that you “feel” a sense of right or wrong (this is conscience) but rather that you intellectually comprehend and appreciate the possibility that everything we do has a consequence. Corrupt leaders see the world as essentially meaningless: They make the law, and if you don't like it, then you'll have to come and pry their winnings away yourself.

If you think about this for any length of time, you might come to the conclusion that natural law favors the corrupt. But however endemic corruption may be, it also appears that social norms are taking us in the opposite direction, to favor “prosocial” behavior. This is because metrics show that helpfulness is not only a predictor of success later in life, but also demonstrably increases team productivity.

You've heard the saying "every dog has his day." Well I think this is true when it comes to corruption as well. It may seem like we live in an era where justice is unobtainable. But I like to think that a new day is dawning. 

Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity. 

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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