Our Extraordinary Capacity For Self-Delusion…

Leaders and followers beware…

My story today falls into the “I-couldn’t-possibly-have-made-this-up” category…

This is a story about self-delusion. It is about two sides of the coin I’m offering you. On the one side of the coin, we have leaders. On the other side, we have their followers—

  • The leaders want to believe the nonsense they might be sprouting—not because its true, but rather because they’d like it to be true. Their challenge is to find someone with the courage to constructively challenge what they are saying…
  • The followers want to believe their leaders so badly that, in the face of the hubris and self-importance of their leaders, they’re happy and eager to suspend their own common sense and natural curiosity. Their choice is between their self-interest in not challenging their leaders and potentially setting back their careers, on the one hand, and acting as a team member to protect their leaders, on the other,

The question, therefore, is what we can do to protect ourselves from falling into the trap created by the leaders’  hubris and their followers’ passivity?

Any why is this important?

One argument is that self-delusion isn’t important—unless, of course, you don’t mind feeling like an idiot once the dust has settled…

Personally, I hate feeling like an idiot. I’m mortified, for example, when I get a parking ticket for not looking carefully enough at the parking signs where I parked. And, as much as I’d like to blame someone else for my stupidity and idiocy, sadly, I just can’t…

Another argument is that self-delusion is critically important to avoid because it could REALLY lead to some near-disastrous consequences if you act—or fail to act—on the self-delusion…

I’ll offer you just this one example:

In the murky world of scams, scammers need marks who are self-delusional. And when they find them, the scammers will immediately recognize this for what it is, namely, a winning lottery ticket—a dream come true…

The name of the game, therefore, is always about common sense snd curiosity—and having the courage to ask questions that might challenge the premise underlying the self-delusion… I believe that this is our only protection against threat of self-delusion…

The gifts my story will offer you…

Without needing to pay me any royalty or other largesse for the gifts my story will offer, here they are—

Firstly, PLEASE, don’t fall asleep at the wheel… Stay awake! PLEASE!!!

And, secondly, PLEASE, never abandon your common sense and curiosity—even when you think either that what you are saying or what you are hearing seems to make sense…

Here’s my story…

You may not believe my story, but it is absolutely true. You can check it out…

I stumbled across these examples of self-delusion when I was researching my book on leaders and scams. Because the book was about how, by applying Nelson Mandela’s skills, this might help us identify and avoid possible scams, my primary focus naturally was on Nelson Mandela…

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So, gentle folks,  read this and weep…

Enron…

As I research Enron—then one of the most highly-respected companies in the kingdom with a board of directors that was regarded as the creme-de-la-creme of corporate boards, I discovered something that did surprise me just a tad…

I discovered that Enron’s management and board had awarded Nelson Mandela its highest prize—“The Enron Prize For Distinguished Public Service.” Previous recipients included Colin Powell and Mikhail Gorbachev.

What surprised me was that Enron awarded Mr. Mandela this prize for the very qualities IT DIDN’T HAVE…

I must admit that this left me scratching my head…

Apparently, nobody at Enron had noticed, for example, that Mr. Mandela’s most remarkable qualities—his overpowering moral authority and integrity—was missing without a trace in the hallowed halls of Enron’s executive suites.

“Integrity” was never a word that readily came to mind when thinking of Enron, And, as for “moral authority,” that was a TOTALLY foreign concept that was absent whenever one thought of Enron’s management and executive teams…

Harvard University…

Then, much to my delight, I discovered that, only a few months earlier, Harvard University had honored Nelson Mandela for the very qualities it had FAILED TO TEACH some of their alumni who happened to be a part Enron’s management and executive teams.

For example, another of Nelson Mandela’s most remarkable qualities was his determination NEVER to put his own personal self-interest ahead of the interests of those he represented. Perhaps the Harvard alumni then working for Enron had missed that class.

That was the conclusion I reached after it became clear that, when faced with a choice between their personal self-interest and integrity, they all chose their self-interest. Just think what might have happened had they not missed that class???

Obviously, I was now on a roll. I couldn’t wait to see who else might have honored Mr. Mandela.

President George W. Bush…

To my unbridled joy, I then discovered that President George W. Bush had awarded Mr. Mandela the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Mr. Mandela’s statesmanship and diplomatic skills— at the very time that President Bush was the subject of worldwide ridicule for his own diplomatic efforts prior to the Iraq war.

Apparently, it had occurred to nobody on his team that there might be a mild irony about this award being presented to Mr. Mandela at that particular time for those particular diplomatic skills…

President Bill Clinton…

And, finally, not even President Clinton was spared. Breathless with excitement, I discovered that he had awarded Mr. Mandela the Congressional Gold Medal for Mr. Mandela’s enormous moral authority. And this, gentle readers, was at a time that President Clinton was embroiled in and consumed with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Had NOBODY on the President’s team have seen the remarkable irony in this? Obviously not…

So, where did this leave me?

Starting with the leaders, I concluded that Enron, Harvard University and the two Presidents each sincerely and honestly believed that each had the stature and credibility to confer the awards they did for the reasons they did. The only problem was that each suffered from an overwhelming case of self-delusion and hubris…

And as for those who witnessed this—the followers, I concluded that they had all abandoned their common sense and curiosity as they were overwhelmed by the hubris of the leaders they were listening to. They too suffered from an overwhelming case of self-delusion…

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My conclusion?

Self-delusion was clearly alive and well and living in the United States… HA!

Our only protection against this self-delusion was a devotion to common sense and curiosity—and for us somehow to summon the courage to ask the questions we must ask…

50 million

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