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Leaders Who Lust in Our Midst


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(20 October 2020)

by Barbara Kellerman, James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School, United States; Co-Author, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy

The leadership industry — leadership centers and institutes, leadership programs and courses, leadership teachers and trainers — sells moderation. Moderation in everything as opposed to excess in anything. Leaders who are well- balanced are said by the experts to develop healthier organizations, make smarter decisions, and perform better overall than their less well-balanced counterparts.

However, in researching our book just out, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, my co-author Todd Pittinsky and I found that leadership and moderation, leadership and balance, go hand in hand only some of the time. Other times they do not. In fact, sometimes leadership, including leadership that is exceptionally effective, is quite the opposite. Sometimes leaders are excessive — they exemplify precisely the unbridled behaviors that most of us who teach leadership instruct our students to shun. Moreover, it turns out that followers can be, and often are, attracted to leaders who temperamentally are extreme. Not repelled by them but intrigued by them. Not repulsed by their being at the far end of a continuum but drawn to them, as if their being on the outer edge is a manifestation not of weakness but of strength.

In general, leaders want to lead. But some leaders want something in addition. Some leaders have another craving, a different and desperate desire for something that appears unrelated but is not. This other impulse is what Pittinsky and I call lust. Our definition of lust is simple: It is a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object, or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily. Lust is not, then, an impulse that is transient. To the contrary, it is an impulse that persists, indefinitely, and is relentless. Churchill, as he was wont to do, put it perfectly in 1938 when he predicted in parliament that Hitler's appetite would "grow with eating."

Given that leaders lust — that some leaders lust — what exactly do they lust for? We found six objects of obsession to be not only the most frequent but to correlate also with the lust to lead. In other words, leadership and lust go hand in hand, the one in service of the other. The six objects of obsession are:

  1. lust for power — the ceaseless craving to control.
  2. lust for money — the limitless desire to accrue greater, and then still greater wealth.
  3. lust for sex — the constant hunt for sexual gratification.
  4. lust for success — the unstoppable need to achieve.
  5. lust for legitimacy — the tireless quest for identity and equity.
  6. lust for legacy — the lifelong longing to leave an imprint that is permanent.

Our book, Leaders Who Lust, is of course abundant with examples — stories of leaders who exemplify each of the six different types of lust. Such leaders are not, however, easy to find. They are not common, they are uncommon. Moreover, there is a reason — not, in our view, a good one, but a reason nonetheless — the leadership industry ignores leaders who lust. For lust cannot be taught. We can, we presume, teach leaders certain skills such as how to, for example, better negotiate, communicate, and make decisions. But we cannot, for better or worse, instruct on or inculcate the insatiable passion that we label lust. Lust is either inborn, or it is something some people acquire in consequence of their life experience. It is not, in any case, a trait or characteristic that can be learned in the classroom or on the job.

For four years Americans have been obsessed with a leader who lusts: President Donald Trump. People in the center and on the left have been gripped by the fear that Trump was an authoritarian who wanted nothing so desperately as to dominate the American political system — forevermore. However, when the dust settles, Trump will be recognized not for having a lust for power — but money. As president, Trump was not interested in politics — never was. Nor was he interested in policy — never was. Nor was he even interested in control — never was. His drive, his unrelenting and unmitigated drive was for wealth, and then for more wealth, and then for greater wealth than anyone else.

Unlike real, recognizable autocrats — such as Russia's president Vladimir Putin, Turkey's president Recep Tayip Erdogan, Egypt's president Abdal Fattah Al-Sisi, and Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban — Trump was child's play. He played at being an autocrat. But never, not for a single day, was he the real deal. His lifelong lust was for money — which did not diminish even a smidgeon when he moved into the White House. Evidence of his lust for money is overwhelming. Perhaps none so convincing as how he described himself, in 2016, when he was running for president: "My whole life I've been greedy, greedy, greedy. I've grabbed all the money I could get. I'm so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States. I want to grab all that money. I'm going to be greedy for the United States."

Leaders who lust are not, by definition, either bad or good. Some leaders who lust draw on their passion to promote the general welfare. Other leaders who lust draw on their passion to promote themselves — only themselves. So, the point of our book is not prescription. It is description. To introduce into the conversation leaders who lust is, finally, to include in our conception of leadership leaders who are extreme. Leaders like these might or might not be role models. But we should, at least, be clear. Leaders who lust can and sometimes do change the ways of the world.

Barbara Kellerman Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the Founding Executive Director of the School's Center for Public Leadership, and from 2003 to 2006 she served as the Center's Research Director. Kellerman was cofounder of the International Leadership Association (ILA), and is author and editor of many books including The Political Presidency; Bad Leadership; Followership; Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence (2010); The End of Leadership (2012); and Hard Times: Leadership in America (2014). Kellerman has appeared often on media outlets such as CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, Reuters and BBC, and has contributed articles and reviews to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Harvard Business Review. Kellerman speaks to audiences all over the world and has won numerous awards including ILA's Lifetime Achievement Award. Her next book – titled The Enablers: How Team Trump Flunked the Pandemic and Failed America - will be published in 2021, also by CUP. Kellerman also posts digital articles at barbarakellerman.com.

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