Leaders, beware of sycophants
Being surrounded by sycophants is an occupational hazard for anyone who has some form of power. Celebrities, CEOs, any kind of leader – they are all vulnerable to the malaise of becoming blinded in the smog created by these yes men and yes women. These are not the people who genuinely care about the leader or act in the leader's best interest. No, these are the individuals who will never fail to flatter the leader at the drop of a hat and will always agree with whatever the leader says – just so they stay in favour and accrue some benefit.
The sycophant will never offer constructive criticism, and in more extreme cases will offer advice that will most likely cause harm to the leader by making them less acceptable to those they are supposed to be leading. Or the sycophant will reinforce the leader's prejudice or wrong assessment of a situation, which may have undesirable consequences – such as firing a competent, talented person just because the sycophant conveniently slipped in a piece of negative information about the person.
Unfortunately for leaders, it is very difficult to differentiate between those who are genuine well-wishers and those who are insincere bootlickers – because both may sound almost the same. Only extremely intuitive leaders, who are not drowned in their own glory, will be able to decipher the real McCoy.
Some of these flatterers are pure opportunists. They will gravitate towards anyone they think has some sort of superior status in society – either through wealth or position or just because of public perception. The idea is to be seen with the powerful person; having a repertoire of selfies with famous or influential people is a must-do. Because when you are with fame, some of it rubs off on you. The opportunistic sycophant is very efficient in orchestrating chance meetings with the target – at events or places they may visit, making sure a photographer is handy. On special occasions, they will post their pictures with the celebrity on social media. This has a multiplier effect with people believing that the person who is with the celebrity must also be someone worth considering.
Soon, the sycophant will acquire their own coterie of flatterers, thus perpetuating the disease that erodes a person's integrity, honesty, and real worth.
Those who are not recipients of the sycophant's attention are the lucky ones, because they are the onlookers who can see right through the fake smiles that fade far too quickly when the target is not looking. After a whole session of flattering the leader, the sycophant may have a pale, fatigued look and often displays irritation, disinterest, and superciliousness when around those they perceive as inconsequential. Sadly, these sycophants have emotional intelligence close to zero, and hence cannot really form honest relationships as they have forgotten how to be empathetic and sincere.
Those who are not recipients of the sycophant's attention are the lucky ones, because they are the onlookers who can see right through the fake smiles that fade far too quickly when the target is not looking.
But let's leave aside the sycophant's inner demons and focus on their targets – the leaders.
What happens to them? Usually, a core circle of sycophants will surround the leader like overzealous bodyguards and make sure that the leader does not get any opportunity to think for themselves, or try to get an objective view from others. The leader will be first bombarded with adulation about all their achievements, the power they have over people, and how brilliant their every move is. They will glibly make up stories of how other powerful people have been impressed by the leader. The leader, giddy with self-love, will be left delusional and blinded. It will leach out the leader's ability to assess things in a rational, logical way.
Once the blindness sets in, the leader can be manipulated to do almost anything. The brilliance of sycophants lies in the way they will make the leader believe that the conclusion that has been arrived at, the decision that has been made, is completely of their own accord. The fact that the leader has been influenced with slow poisoning, that the outcome serves the sycophant's agenda, will never be detected. It will leave the leader more and more clueless about what is really going on while pushing them further away from the people they are leading. It will give them a false sense of invincibility and grandeur. The leader will become more and more vulnerable to the lies of the sycophants. Eventually, they will stand helpless in front of a wall that has cracked in too many places.
So, can leaders survive this inevitable onslaught? For some, it may be too late. But for those who still feel that twinge of conscience every now and then, there may be an antidote.
One of the traits most advocated by leadership gurus is the ability to listen to people. This means listening to everyone's view – especially from those who seldom get a chance to voice their opinions. In a CEO's case, it would be the junior-most staff; in a nation's leader's case, it would be the people, the silent majority.
For the CEO of a company, it is perhaps easier to talk to their own staff. For a political leader, it is harder because of the layers of leadership under them that may block them from the realities on the ground as it may disrupt the status quo, expose the sycophants' inefficiencies and occasional deception.
The leader must therefore seek out the voices of the unheard, the voices of reason and expertise, thus helping to identify corrosive trends like the corruption of public officials, deficiencies in administration, and excesses of the sycophants. If the leader is smart, they will use this information to mend the cracks and come out stronger than ever.
Listening, of course, requires restraint, calmness, and humility – the last trait fast becoming extinct in today's world of obsessive self-promotion. Humility will give the leader 20-20 vision and give them the patience to hear the point of view of others. Hubris, on the other hand, will cause blindness, forcing the leader to succumb to the trap laid out by the sycophants.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is joint editor at The Daily Star.