Megalomania: A Terminal Organizational Disease (P.S. You Might Be Infected)

The Hierarchy of Needs: Maslow's Seminal Contribution to the Social Sciences 

Even among people whose physiological needs remain unmet, the desire to become everything that they are capable of becoming can be present and strong. 
Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow introduced his seminal theory of human motivation in 1943, which is summarized in his hierarchy of needs. For the past 75 odd years, Maslow’s definition of human needs as they relate to motivation has had a significant influence on behavioral science. The hierarchy of needs also provides a theoretical framework for explaining everything from war to religion and continues to be a useful tool in helping individuals to understand better why certain behavioral manifestations occur in themselves and others. While Maslow’s model of human motivation may not be perfect (no model is) and has its detractors, it has been a pillar of the social sciences for almost a century and is academically on socio-behavioral terra firma. 

Hierarchy of needs

Hierarchy of needs

At the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy is the concept of “self-actualization.” Maslow defined self-actualization as "…the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." The notion of becoming everything that one is capable of becoming can be activated in different ways for different people. Even among people whose physiological needs remain unmet, the desire to become everything that they are capable of becoming can be present and strong. 

Self-Actualization Through Megalomania

Over the course of my professional career...megalomaniacs in positions of authority have caused more damage to individuals and organizations than any other phenomena I have observed.

How a person imagines what he/she is capable of becoming (i.e., self-actualizing) is highly dependent upon his/her cultural values. Imagining becoming a warlord may be a culturally relevant aspiration in Afghanistan, whereas becoming the CEO of a fortune 500 company is a likelier aspiration in the U.S. Nevertheless, be it a warlord or a CEO, I submit that there is a relationship between self-actualization and the desire for authority. This phenomenon is not universal; not everyone aspires to authority to self-actualize, but many do. I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with aspiring to authority; it is how individuals exercise authority once they’ve gained it where the collision points start to occur when they develop megalomania—an obsession with power and authority over others.  

While we are not all predisposed to megalomania, I think many who wield authority come to a fork in the road—be it subconsciously or fully aware—regarding whether they are going to exercise their authority in a megalomaniacal manner or benevolently. And, unfortunately, for reasons I will discuss, many choose the former. 

Over the course of my professional career, which has spanned 16 years, megalomaniacs in positions of authority have caused more damage to individuals and organizations than any other phenomena I have observed. More specifically, it is the diabolical combination of incompetence in the ability to exercise authority and ambition to authority that has caused more consternation, low morale, and cynicism among people within organizations than any other thing I have observed. This state leads to high rates of turnover, which drains organizations of their most valuable asset: intellectual capital in the form of human beings.  

When I have asked (and I have asked many times) whether an individual in a position of authority considers him/herself to be a megalomaniac, the universal response has been “no.” Nevertheless, I have observed dozens of individuals within numerous organizations across several industries exhibit megalomaniacal tendencies and behaviors. Furthermore, these behaviors, in my observation, are independent of age, gender, religion, and race. And, ironically, megalomaniacal behavior, in fact, prevents people from self-actualizing as they become slaves to their obsessions with power, thus blocking their potential to become everything that they are capable of becoming. 

Because there is almost nothing that tastes so good to the brain as power in the form of authority—perhaps because it in some way speaks to all of the needs on Maslow’s hierarchy—it can be difficult for individuals to resist the temptation to maintain and expand their authority through megalomaniacal behaviors. 

Manifestations of Megalomaniacal Behavior

Even when people are fully aware of their behavior, they are likely to tell themselves a nice story that they are doing it for supposedly noble reasons...

We often equate megalomania with overtly aggressive and piggish behaviors. However, the most effective megalomaniacs are very subtle in their behaviors. Megalomania is significantly shaped by the culture of the organization in which an individual finds him/herself. Organizational norms set boundaries for what is considered acceptable, but leave plenty of room for unproductive megalomaniacal behavior. Like water that finds the path of least resistance, megalomaniacal behavior can be very passive if nevertheless every bit as corrosive

A primary driver of megalomania is a desire to maintain and expand existing authority. Passive megalomania often manifests as:

  • providing unwarranted negative feedback to subordinates
  • gaslighting—the highly calculating and passive-aggressive technique of manipulating someone into questioning his/her sanity
  • micromanaging
  • spreading rumors
  • sharing private information
  • making subtle jabs about performance or appearance
  • deliberate exclusion
  • keeping expectations intentionally ambiguous
  • cultivating cliques
  • public and private undeserved dressing-down
  • resistance to constructive feedback

These are all subtle but potent manifestations of megalomania when they are in the service of the authority figure maintaining his/her power. Even when people are fully aware of their behavior, they are likely to tell themselves a nice story that they are doing it for supposedly noble reasons, such as getting results out of people, meeting goals, making the company money, maintaining order and decorum, etc., when in reality all of these reasons are a convenient veneer for self-actualizing through the blind or fully-cognizant abuse of power. And it is this phenomenon—especially when coupled with incompetence—that is the cause of so many ailments that plague organizations as they are stymied by a kind of soft tyranny fueled by individuals’ obsession with and abuse of power as they attempt to self-actualize. 

Moving Beyond Megalomania as Self-Actualization

Succession to the thrones of power—and very especially among the middle ranks of organizational hierarchies—is frequently mistakenly based on tenure, loyalty, conscientiousness, and ambition.

As the Russians have so often asked themselves throughout their history using the semi-rhetorical question, “Что делать?”, (What is to be done?), What indeed is to be done about this pervasive and corrosive phenomenon of megalomania that seems to be built into the DNA of so many organizations?

The first thing is to disrupt the equation by removing the variable of incompetence. This notion presupposes that exercising authority requires some competence, which I submit it unequivocally does. Succession to the thrones of power—and very especially among the middle ranks of organizational hierarchies—is frequently mistakenly based on tenure, loyalty, conscientiousness, and ambition.

Because many national and regional cultures view climbing the ladder of authority to be of inherent value, this perpetuates the narrative that the ambition to authority is an inherently valuable form of self-actualization. After all, if your value increases as you rise up the ranks, you must be reaching your potential and becoming everything you are capable of. This drives loyalty, conscientiousness, and ambition, which organizations reward with increases in authority. If you've been loyal, conscientious, and ambitions, it stands to reason that your next natural step in the evolution of your career is to take on a role of “people management." This logic is flawed. Just because someone has mastered a discrete skill and is loyal, conscientious, and ambitious does not mean he/she is fit to oversee people. And yet, this is regularly the underlying premise of succession planning, without any thought to the discrete skills required to exercise authority. So, in reality, there are two problems. First, there is a cultural narrative that suggests taking on more authority is inherently self-actualizing. Second, there is a false equation that individuals with discrete skills in a given area of expertise plus loyalty, conscientiousness, ambition, and tenure equal competence to exercise authority over others in their own and related skill fields. 

The first problem (i.e., authority as a means of self-actualizing) is difficult to disrupt due to cultural conditioning. An additional variable that makes disrupting this paradigm all the more difficult is the fact that taking on more authority is accompanied by raises in pay, adding an extrinsic incentive. The first thing an organization can do is to start to decouple levels of authority from levels of compensation. Controversial? Very. I would never advocate reducing a person’s pay who is already in a position of authority and whose pay raise was linked to taking on that position of authority; that’s a recipe for revolt, if not lawsuits. At the same time, changing the compensation structure so that more authority does not equal more money will remove at least one variable that perpetuates cultures of megalomaniacal behavior among holders of authority who lack competence in holding and using authority. I can already hear the retort: “But if we don’t pay people more money to take on more authority, fewer people will step up.” If lack of more compensation is preventing people from taking on more authority, I suggest that warrants a hard look at what it means to take on more authority in your organization; it may look like the time-consuming and emotionally-draining task of tending to an aimless flock sheep, instead of the fulfilling activity to helping others be the best they can be. 

A strategy of removing a monetary incentive to take on authority could result in fewer aspirants. However, I would offer that many organizations suffer from a glut of “middle managers” anyway. Swelling ranks of middle management is a symptom of the development of bureaucracies within organizations, as middle managers are vested with authority to serve as the keepers of policies, procedures, systems, and structures to ensure conformity and uniformity within an organization based on “lessons learned” that have been codified. So, fewer people raising their hands for more authority can be leveraged to de-bureaucratize an organization. Furthermore, as I’ve argued in the past, the best way to ensure that people are both reaching their full potential and have the flexibility to innovate—an essential ingredient in sustainable organizational success—is by creating a culture of mentorship and coaching, and not people management. 

The second problem—i.e., the false equation that individuals with discrete skills in a given area of expertise plus loyalty, conscientiousness, and ambition equal competence to exercise authority over others—is easier to address. While the constructs of self-organizing teams and so-called leaderless organizations have been around for decades, it is not in wide use and not universally applicable. While leaderless organizations and self-organizing teams are an intriguing concept, I believe most organizations need not go this far and can be very successful and thrive in their productivity, profitability (if it’s a for-profit organization), collaboration, and innovation using more traditional organizational structures, meaning a cadre of individuals who have limited formal authority over others. But to do this without creating cultures that encourage megalomaniacal behavior, the variable of competence must be reckoned with. Skill in a discrete discipline plus loyalty, conscientiousness, ambition, and tenure form the foundation for excellent authority figures, like flour and sugar for the cake, but do not equal competence in exercising authority. On the other hand, all too often organizations experience the converse problem when they appoint individuals to positions of authority who know nothing of the skills of those whom they oversee. Neither of these scenarios is the right approach. 

Exercising authority requires the ability to make and develop intellectually, emotionally, and intuitively sound judgments and strategies, in addition to having an attitude of service, humility, and inclusivity in decision-making. Growing these capacities helps to close the incompetence gap. People need not be experts in these skills at first. But these skills must be their guiding compass, in place of a frame of mind that promotes megalomaniacal behaviors and self first. This framing requires forethought on the part of organizations to be more deliberate about succession planning through training and development that conditions individuals to frame authority as an opportunity to serve and not be served. And not everyone will want to take on these opportunities to serve in positions of authority or have the aptitude to do so. But that must not mean they are incapable of self-actualizing within or have lesser value to the organization.  

I realize I’m challenging a deep cultural narrative here about the relationship between the amount of authority a person has and his/her value. But if organizations are to move beyond cultures of megalomania and subsequent soft tyranny, with accompanying low levels of productivity, profitability, collaboration, and innovation, career progression must be decoupled from the accumulation of authority and individuals must be valued, even if their path of progression is that of a subject matter expert and not an authority figure.  

Summary

To keep your organization from suffering this terminal disease, prioritize mentoring and coaching over authoritarian watchdogs of bureaucracy, and ensure those who are given authority are operating with a properly calibrated compass, pointing to the true north of personal development of intellectual, emotional, and intuitive intelligence in order to humbly, wisely, and soundly serve others. 

Not everyone who has authority abuses it. But too many do because of a lack of competence in the form of intellectual, emotional, and intuitive intelligence and a desire to be served rather than serve. People’s ambition, tenure, loyalty, and conscientiousness are often rewarded with greater authority. When this occurs as a matter of routine without mechanisms in place to develop additionally required capacities—namely intellectual, emotional, and intuitive intelligence, and an attitude of humble service and inclusivity—the stage is set for a culture of soft tyranny with acceptable levels of megalomania within the organization. When a person operates in their authority with an inadequately calibrated compass in hand that points toward self as true north, then they are not prepared to take on authority over others. And if the organization continues to promote this type of person, it reinforces the perception that nasty behavior is the path to authority and self-actualization, thus guaranteeing a culture entrenched in megalomania. And this culture neither serves the long-term interests of internal and external organizational stakeholders, nor the individuals who exhibit these behaviors. It may take years, but if this is an organization’s culture around authority, it will eventually lead to such toxicity as to paralyze the organization’s ability to be productive, profitable, collaborative, and innovative.

To keep your organization from suffering this terminal disease, prioritize mentoring and coaching over authoritarian watchdogs of bureaucracy, and ensure those who are given authority are operating with a properly calibrated compass, pointing to the true north of personal development of intellectual, emotional, and intuitive intelligence in order to humbly, wisely, and soundly serve others. 

Much in the same way J. R. R. Tolkien examined humans' relationship to power vas-à-vis the One Ring, which tested all who touched it, each who comes into contact with the power of authority must reckon, on some level, with how that authority is going to influence and change him/her, and make a deliberate choice to use authority as a means to serve. And those who do will be pleasantly surprised at just how powerful service is in meeting the need to self-actualize.