The Dependent Leader: Rob Ford, Incompetent Leadership, and Risky Business

Today, Dana Smith published an interesting analysis of Rob Ford’s behavior in the Guardian, noting that we cannot assume he’s an addict, but that he might be a person with dependent behaviors — i.e. excessive risk taking that leads to poor decision making. This is fascinating in terms of leadership assessment, helping us broaden our analysis of leader behaviors, moving one step past the questions of leadership authenticity and identity I raised in yesterday’s blog about Ford.

Chris Young AP

Chris Young AP

Smith wrote: “Anecdotally, examples of needle sharing, unsafe sex and driving under the influence are used to demonstrate instances of poor or risky decision-making that seem to be increased in heavy drug users. However, examples such as these can be difficult to empirically measure. So scientists have created behavioural tasks that can be used to objectively quantify poor decision-making in an attempt to determine if such traits really are higher in dependent individuals.”

Here’s the task breakdown: “Say someone (reliable) offers you a choice: you can either have £10 today, or you can have £20 if you wait another two weeks. Which would you choose, the small immediate payout or the larger delayed reward?  In this classic example of a delay-discounting task, individuals who are dependent on alcohol, cocaine or heroin consistently show a preference for the smaller sooner option, even though rationally you should wait for the later greater reward. This is indicative of an increase in impulsivity and difficulty with waiting, perhaps representative of the choice to use drugs now rather than enjoy a healthier life later on.

“Another test of decision-making involves your penchant for risk. In a mock gambling task, participants can choose between four decks of cards and are instructed to make as much money as they can. Two of the decks give you a smaller payout but also have a smaller risk for loss, resulting in an overall gain, while the other two decks give out large rewards but can also hit you with heavy fines, resulting in an overall loss.

“Dependent drug users again show impairment on the task, consistently going for those risky decks, even after punishments of up to £1,000. This tendency to consistently gamble on a risky option, hoping to get away with that big reward without experiencing the negative consequences, might help to explain the decision to continue using drugs even in the face of potential punishments, like getting arrested or losing your job.

Parts of the brain involved in executive decision making

Parts of the brain involved in executive decision making

“Both of these tasks tap into a part of your brain that is involved in self-control and executive functioning. This area, the prefrontal cortex, is also a region that is known to be smaller in dependent drug users, and activation in this area is often impaired during performance of these tasks. These brain changes are largely thought to be the consequence of long-term drug use, although there is also evidence that differences in this area may predate heavy drug-taking in dependent individuals.”

In leadership terms, this measure can be translated into some of the behaviors we associate with good leadership: being willing to delay gratification, setting healthy long-term goals, assessing the real-world value of risk, exercising self-control by paying attention to the big picture, and organizing behavior based on all the information available.
The dependent leader — whatever short-term pleasure they may be dependent on — can’t do these things. Most notably, they can’t make effective decisions that consider the well being of a larger community or organization. The dependent leader lives in a thrill-seeking, ego-driven world, and sabotages his or her success because s/he can’t see any other way.

Interesting, isn’t it? Smith speculates that Ford may simply be incompetent, not addicted. (She doesn’t talk about food addiction, but his brother does say his biggest problem is his weight — perhaps that is a clue to his dependent personality?) At any rate, his public behavior does indicate a dependent leadership pattern that can be instructive if we just step back and consider leadership as chosen behaviors with social consequences.

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