Paranoia can be defined as a thought process often caused by fear or anxiety why a person distorts or creates a delusional existence. Paranoid people can often believe that people are “out to get them” and struggle to trust or empower other team members and people around them. Extreme levels of paranoia can see people actually self- sabotage their own potential success in order to avoid giving the chance for others to do it. These behaviours in isolation do not tend to lead to strong leadership traits which poses the question; why are so many leaders paranoid?

Politics is the obvious arena where paranoid leaders have ruled the world for centuries. Political leadership gives people the ultimate power and is desired by many; you may be in power one day but friendless the next. The writers of the acclaimed series The West Wing summed it up brilliantly in an episode where ex-presidential candidate Arnie Vinnick had to line up for a coffee at Starbucks and the young employee who served him referred to him as Ernie. He was suddenly a nobody and this scares many leaders in the political sphere. Leaders often see the removal of all other potential threats as the way to ensure longevity in the role, irrespective of talent, suitability and ability. They are scared of being challenged; frightened to lose their grip on power and often paranoid about what is really being said about them. Some leadership purges have been obvious and brutal; Stalin, Mao, Hitler and successive leaders of North Korea come straight to mind. Other leadership purges are less obvious and don’t involve bloodshed; recent political history in Australia where potential leadership rivals are pushed to the back bench is a pertinent example. However, the underlying trend is the same; talented people who may be best for the job are shunted (or removed entirely) because the leaders are paranoid about potential challengers taking their job.


There are many examples of paranoid leadership traits in business as well. Recently, I was asked to take in a job brief by a CEO. He was looking for someone to support him in a COO role, however, when I probed further on the behavioural competencies he was seeking one answer he gave set me back somewhat. He said; “I want somebody sharp but not too strong. The leadership in this business can come from me and me alone and his or her role will be to execute my plan and not question it. I would prefer it if they did not have any access to the Board however they may want a say in the recruitment of the role.” His answers screamed that he was insecure in the role and scared of recruiting someone who could be seen as a successor. Denying access to the Board at COO level highlighted that he was not keen to promote from within and certainly not keen to give the level of exposure required for someone to promote their career.

There are many signs of paranoia at a leadership level. Here are some that I have witnessed over the years:

  • An extremely small circle of trust – there are very few, if any, people who are fully trusted by paranoid leaders and those who are, tend to have had long relationships with the leader. They control the information flow and are often the only ones empowered to make any decisions. They also tend to be remunerated exceptionally well for the roles they perform
  • Blockages with decision making – because there are only ever a few people who can make decisions, and those people are often hesitant to do so, decision making can be slow or non-existant. Projects can run over time and budget as people are scared to pull the trigger
  • Politics is rife – paranoid leaders tend not to communicate and in the absence of transparent communication allows politics, rumour and innuendo to fester
  • Single minded determination – paranoid leaders are often motivated by an overwhelming desire to prove themselves and as such stop at nothing to achieve their goal. People and relationships tend to be purely business based or functional and are often viewed as a necessary evil to get the job done
  • No plans for people development or succession planning – because people are rarely viewed as important and the business tends to be focused on one key figure, people plans and succession planning rarely happens. It is viewed as a waste of time

I find it difficult to believe that paranoia is an essential criteria for business success but it certainly does sharpen some sense that are important to be successful. Paranoia keeps you on your feet so to say and ensures that your early warning signs are working. However, it kills off far too many ideas and leads to dysfunctional teams. There are some extraordinary examples of paranoid people leading great businesses but there are far more that stifle ideas and prevent businesses from winning. Do you have a suitable amount of paranoia to be successful?

Brad McMahon – Managing Director

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