Catastrophic Leadership Failure as Defined by Henry L. Thompson, Ph.D.


Henry L. “Dick” Thompson, PhD, has done important and revealing research into what he calls “Catastrophic Leadership Failure”. Dr. Thompson has found direct relationships between Emotional Intelligence and “Catastrophic Leadership Failure”, but what does this mean for HR/OD professionals, and, what if anything can we do about this when we encounter it?

To help us better understand how leaders often find themselves in these stressful and difficult positions, Thompson’s work below can help us better understand why a leader who is educated, intelligent, and may even be a very pleasant person might start to make really quite bad decisions. Thompson says, “There are numerous well-known public examples, e.g., Enron, World.com, Tyco, the American Red Cross, Katrina, etc. CEOs are being replaced at a record high rate of 7.6 per business day. Over 28% of these CEOs were in position less than three years, and 13% less than one year (Challenger, Gray & Christmas, 2005). Research (Thompson, 2005) shows that stress and its impact on cognitive and emotional abilities may provide at least a partial explanation of what Thompson calls “Catastrophic Leadership Failure.”

Thompson continues: “Cognitive ability (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EI) abilities are required for successful leader performance—at all levels. Recent findings on leadership, stress, IQ and EI over the last 25 years indicate that when a leader’s stress level is sufficiently elevated— whether on the front line of a manufacturing process, in the emergency room, the Boardroom or on the battlefield—his/her ability to fully and effectively use IQ and EI in tandem to make timely and effective decisions is significantly impaired. This impairment often leads to catastrophic results. A war for talent is underway. Finding, recruiting and hiring talented leaders with high IQ and EI are only the first battles of the war. The war will be won or lost by those who are able to control stress at the individual and company levels. Dysfunctional responses to stress negate talent, IQ and EI.

Research clearly demonstrates that cognitive ability (IQ) directly impacts leader performance (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998; Sternberg, 2001; Thompson, 2007). Schmidt and Hunter (1998) reviewed 85 years of leadership research and found that general mental ability (IQ) was a strong predictor of leadership success. As the complexity of the job increases so does the value of IQ.”

Thompson’s observations and empirical research on the relationship of IQ to leader performance over the last twenty five years validates that IQ is predictive of “cognitive” learning ability and speed of information processing, both of which make a significant contribution to leadership performance, particularly at the higher leader-role levels. IQ tends to be the price of admission for executive level leadership positions. It is very difficult to rise up the corporate ladder without an IQ in the 120-125 range.”

Thompson also states: “Whether IQ or EI contributes the most in leader performance is still debatable at this point. However, EI has been shown to play a significant role at all levels of leadership. Salovey and Mayer defined emotional intelligence as:

“A person’s innate ability to perceive and manage his/her own emotions in a manner that results in successful interactions with the environment, and if others are present, to also perceive and manage their emotions in a manner that results in successful interpersonal interactions.” (Thompson, 2006).

Note that this definition does not require interaction with another person. EI involves “managing and controlling the Awareness and Appraisal of emotions and the resulting action in a manner that produces successful outcomes, whether in the presence or absence of others.” This has great significance for decision-making, performance evaluation, how a leader responds to diversity issues, how a leader responds to legal compliance issues, how a leader experiences and uses his or her authority, how a leader responds to conflict, how decisions are made, and whether or not a leader wants to know if he or she is doing his or her job properly or well. This is the simplest way to describe it. The description that follows is one of the more complex ways to describe it.

Thompson explains how emotional intelligence (EI) works in the human brain: “When a stimulus occurs, a signal comes into the brain to the thalamus, which acts like an air traffic controller. The thalamus sends information to various parts of the brain, particularly “up” to the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and “down” to the amygdala (Goldberg, 2001). The PFC, or CEO of the brain, controls “higher” level thinking processes, e.g., logic, analysis, decision-making, etc.—a significant portion of the leader’s IQ.

The amygdala, sometimes described as the emotional center, plays a major role in emotional responses. It responds incredibly fast to incoming stimuli. But, fortunately, in most cases, the PFC is able to exert control over the amygdala reactions and help the leader avoid what Daniel Goleman (1995) calls “amygdala hijacking.”

Thompson continues: “When the right blend of thinking and control from the PFC is combined with the right amount of emotion from the amygdala, a person may execute an appropriate action pattern to respond successfully to a particular event (stimulus). If this process works “correctly,” then that person is said to have performed intelligently, both emotionally and cognitively. Successful leadership interactions require a certain amount of conscious intention using both the PFC and the amygdala to create a blended response. When something, such as stress, interferes with the functioning of the PFC, the probability of making an inappropriate interpersonal decision increases.

Each year stress in the workplace costs US industry over $350,000,000 and is linked to each of the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. Stress was dubbed the 20th century disease and is quickly becoming the disease of the 21st century as well. When a leader encounters a stressful event, a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones is released into his/her system resulting in a short-term increase in strength, concentration and reaction time. These changes may be helpful in the initial response to a stressful event.

However if the stress becomes high enough for a long enough period, deleterious effects will follow. The initial release of neurotransmitters and hormones into a leader’s system begins to affect major brain systems, particularly the PFC and the amygdala. Too much stress “turns off” the PFC, resulting in a drop in IQ and ability to control the amygdala. Stress temporarily reduces IQ (Arnsten, 1998)! At the same time, the increased stress “turns on” the amygdala creating an overly sensitive heightened state of emotion. A leader loses a significant amount of ability to “control” his/her emotions, thus be coming not only temporarily cognitively impaired, but also less emotionally intelligent!”

What can we learn from Thompson’s important research for ourselves, to better understand and assist our leadership, and to better understand and assiat the entire workforce and organizational mission? Many important things. The implications of this research extend far beyond “Catastrophic Leadership Failure”. The issues of stress and health are very relevant for HR/OD professionals as well as all employees and all leaders.

Change is hard. People—any of us–can be resistant or defensive. However, we can LEARN, and we can also be resilient and bring awareness to ourselves; we can ask what we want to be different and better. We can consider what we don’t know – what we may need to learn.

We can explore what is in our power to adjust, change and improve. We can make changes. We can define what our goals are and plan to meet them. When we consider how far we have come from the time of cave-dwellers until now, we realize just how much change, growth, and development is possible for human beings.

There will be those leaders who don’t want to hear Thompson’s cautionary message on “Catastrophic Leadership Failure” and who don’t want to understand how it is they wound up in the news media, in jail, or having bankrupted stakeholders. There will be those business leaders who are too frightened or ashamed to acknowledge that they have mishandled something important. They will keep it a secret. They will view all those around them who try to do things differently than them as their enemies.

There will be those leaders who don’t understand that employees who are hard-working, innovative, creative, ethical, but who aren’t “yes-men” or “yes-women” will either grow bored and leave or might even be lost by getting fired for not being “yes-people”, which is just another form of leadership failure—firing the wrong people and retaining the wrong people.

Leaders who fail will exclude quality staff from meetings, decisions, and processes because they don’t want to share power, to share success or to share failure – they don’t want to share learning. They may continue to make quite bad decisions and not even be aware if they are violating the law or creating more and more serious problems for themselves because they only want to be surrounded by those who agree with them–or–because they will only accept disagreement and critical thinking from a select few. These examples and any form of refusal to share power are products of amygdala-hijacking.

This is another area where diversity and emotion, largely happening in the unconscious, must be noticed, acknowledged, and addressed. Catastrophic Leadership Failure—making bad decisions due to decreased IQ and EI– can be a downward spiral. The refusal to “share power” is crucial. When the HR professional says, “I think we need to do this differently”, he or she is asserting himself or herself in a way that may or may not be welcome – depending on the kind of leaders the HR professional reports to.

Catastrophic Leadership Failure is marked by a refusal to acknowledge or correct errors and/or stop and reverse large errors when they are still smaller errors. Catastrophic Leadership Failure is also marked by a refusal to share power and by several concepts noted by Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea B. Mayfield in their book The Thin Book of Naming Elephants, which looks at gaps between what is said in organizations policy-wise and what is actually done in practice — as well as leadership arrogance and allowing abusive managers to remain in management positions.

Hammond and Mayfield studied the culture of NASA after the Challenger tragedy to learn the conceptual markers of workplace cultural “elephants” that predict organizational crisis and/or failure. While not all failures result in the loss of many lives, just as tragic damage can be done over a longer term which impacts spouses, children, employee health, insurance costs, and the rest of the workplace culture that observes and responds to these markers of failure, which can easily be prevented.

Thompson, Henry, L. 2008. Catastrophic Leadership Failure (trademarked). International Conference on Emotional Intelligence. 2008. Chicago, IL.

Hammond, Sue Annis, and Andrea B. Mayfield. 2004. The Thin Book of Naming Elephants: How to Surface Undiscussables for Greater Organizational Success. Thin Book Publishing Co. http://www.thinbook.com.

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About Denise A Romano

Denise A Romano is the author of The HR Toolkit: An Indispensable Resource for Being a Credible Activist, published by McGraw Hill in 2010. She is a workplace expert and has a strong interest in government, business, workplace, and personal ethics. She can be found on LinkedIn. View all posts by Denise A Romano

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