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Transcript: Why abusive leaders still rise to the top

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today, I am delighted to speak to a colleague in Australia from the University of Queensland, Neal Ashkanasy.

You have been studying high-performance supervision and find some, I think, quite contrary findings from what we would expect. What did you find, Neal?

NEAL ASHKANASY – There are some interesting aspects of supervision. It has been in the press recently, especially in Australia, where Australia recently reappointed Kevin Rudd as prime minister. [Note: Mr. Rudd was defeated in a federal election on Sept. 7, 2013, and subsequently announced his retirement from Parliament on Nov. 13.] Kevin Rudd is infamous for a YouTube video showing him being very abusive towards the people providing the interview. In fact, it turns out that this is his management style and consequently many people in the Australian Labor Party were reluctant to appoint him prime minister again because they wouldn't work with him, but he is incredibly popular to the public. Consequently, when the Labor Party was in dire straights poll-wise, they reappointed him and he is now the prime minister going into an election.

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But he is not alone, [former U.S. president] Lyndon Johnson is described, by Robert Caro in his award-winning biographies, as an incredibly abusive man. He used to scream at his assistants, make them work ridiculous hours; Kevin Rudd does the same thing. Over and over again, we hear these stories. [The late Apple Inc. co-founder] Steve Jobs is another one.

But, somehow or another, people seem to look past that. There is a tendency for people to be so devoted to leaders that they allow them to abuse them like this and actually that lifts them to a higher level. So what is going on here, this is something that I am studying.

KARL MOORE – Neal, you are not calling for leaders to be more abusive I assume…

NEAL ASHKANASY – On the contrary, Karl. We all have problems with leaders who are abusive. They are attracting a lot of attention at the moment, they cause an enormous amount of stress. Ultimately, they affect the performance of organizations. But, on the other hand, there are examples where these leaders seem to be very effective in certain circumstances.

We want to see how leaders can become high-performance-focused without the abuse. How can you take leaders who perform in this abusive way and encourage them to be just as motivating but without the abusive stuff?

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