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Leaders Who Lust

Leaders Who Lust

IN 2004, Barbara Kellerman wrote that “the idea that some leaders and some followers are bad, and that they might have something in common with good leaders and followers, has not fully penetrated the conversation or the curriculum” on leadership. And it should because it is true—the good and the bad are an inherent part of us all.

Kellerman also rightly asserts in Bad Leadership that “Human nature is human nature, and that makes it inevitable that certain patterns of bad leadership repeat themselves.” And this brings us to Leaders Who Lust by Barbara Kellerman and Todd Pittinsky.

Lust is a component of human nature. It is a human nature issue. It is innate, but it is not always acted upon. The determining factor is character—the character to bring the self under control. Lust is a fixation on the self.

Kellerman and Pittinsky define lust as: “A psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.” Their definition helps to separate it from determination and grit. The difference really comes down to motivation and closure. And no matter how many times a lustful leader might insist, “I’m doing it for the people” or “to do good for the world,” the “people” can see through the rhetoric to the selfish motivation behind it.

They note that lust can result in good or bad outcomes. Leaders can harness their lust for the common good, or “leaders who lust can as readily harness their prodigious energies to foster murder and mayhem.”

They cover six different types of lust that are the most indicative and important to leadership and two individuals that typify that form of lust.

Power: the ceaseless craving to control. Examples: Roger Ailes and Xi Jinping

Money: the limitless desire to accrue great wealth. Examples: Warren Buffett and Charles Koch

Sex: the constant hunt for sexual gratification. Examples: John F. Kennedy and Silvio Berlusconi

Success: the unstoppable need to achieve. Examples: Hillary Clinton and Tom Brady

Legitimacy: the tireless claim to identity and equity. Examples: Nelson Mandela and Larry Kramer

Legacy: the endless quest to leave a permanent imprint. Examples: Bill and Melinda Gates and George Soros

While all of these examples are instructive and, in some cases, are cautionary, not all of these examples seem to fit the definition of pure, unadulterated lust. Some may have other issues driving their behavior. In any event, I always find Kellerman to be very insightful.

When it comes to lust, the underlying issue is control—an attempt to bend reality to your wishes. In most cases, lustful leaders believe that they are doing right by pushing their agenda.

When lust doesn’t get the results a leader wants, it is easy to point to some bias or prejudice, as the authors do in a few of the examples. And certainly, for some, it is a hurdle they must overcome, but further examination often uncovers other character flaws and abusive personalities undermining lustful leaders. Success often points to a degree of self-awareness where the leader has been able to consider their context and adjust accordingly.

Some leaders who lust are fortunate. Depending on the object of their lust, on their level of self-control, on who are their followers, and on the circumstances within which they are situated, some leaders who lust can use it to good effect. By “use it to good effect” we mean that such leaders can meet one or another need or want of their own, if only temporarily, while simultaneously meeting one or another need or want of their followers.

It does raise the question as the authors do, does moderation lead to mediocrity? The answer, of course, is no. They are two different issues. The fact that some succeed without moderation does not indicate causation. Sometimes a leader succeeds on the surface regarding their agenda in spite of their flaws, but they do pay a price.

Lust is not taught, but it does exist in our human nature. That said, the example of a lustful leader can arouse others to follow in their footsteps in an effort to get what they want.

Some of the lust lessons they enumerate are:

Lust can and sometimes does overwhelm common sense—which is, however, not by definition a deficit. “Sometimes lust overtakes common sense with results that are not only positive, they are downright exciting. One could even argue that the great dreamers in history, the great movers and shakers, are not usually known for their common sense. Rather they are known for having driving passion and vaulting ambition—levels of passion and ambition that not only are not reasonable, that are downright unreasonable.” That unreasonableness may take them to new levels of achievement or understanding that was not thought possible.

Lust is an inordinately powerful motivator—perhaps the most powerful motivator of all. “We primarily conclude that lust, as much as or maybe even more than anything else, distinguishes merely ordinary leaders from obviously extraordinary leaders.” Lust certainly drives people to perform in ways that are inspiring. The intense focus that lust can bring can move mountains. This leads us to the next observation.

Leaders who lust generally are in control, not out for control. “Lustful leaders do not usually behave in ways that are beyond the pale—they are not crazy. Generally, they channel their drive; if they did not, they would increase their chances of being ousted.” This is true in almost all cases as long as that leader feels they are moving forward. But leave them with no rational alternatives, and they often resort to unethical, outlandish behaviors to de-escalate the dissonance building up in their own mind.

We admire lustful leaders for their drive and discipline. The difference between lust and drive is closure. With lust, the self is never satisfied—the goalpost keeps moving further on. The challenge for us is to know where drive ends, and lust begins. At what point does pushing our own agenda become destructive and what is it we are really after. Self-examination is key if we are going to avoid the pitfalls of lust.

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