Leadership “Harem” Style (2016)

Manfred Kets de Vries

"Harems and fawning power plays"

Edward had been flattered when asked to join Serail Corporation’s executive team as VP Finance. Now, he was trying to manage his disappointment at discovering his portfolio was almost identical to one of his close colleague’s. When he discussed the matter with the CEO, he was told that, while there might be some overlap, their areas of responsibility were different. The situation didn’t sit well with Edward and he had discovered - having taken a closer look at the roles of other members of the executive team - that he was not the only one in this predicament.


From the beginning, Edward was struck by the number of people reporting to the CEO. In his experience, when the number of direct reports hit double-digits, teams became cumbersome, not really productive. And this assumption seemed to be all too true. Having attended a few of Serail Corporation’s executive team meetings, Edward felt the word “meeting” didn’t really give credit to what was going on. At best these get-togethers turned into information disseminating gatherings, usually, little or no real discussions of substantial issues would take place. His impression was that while the “team” was ostensibly a decision making body, in reality it was a highly constipated, underperforming and floundering entity. Too many of his colleagues were busy with social rituals and not mentally present. The real give-and-take that characterised proper meetings was completely absent. In fact most of his colleagues were silent, with the CEO doing almost all of the talking, thus very little got done.


What makes a team?


The CEO had seemed to be such a strong believer in the value of teamwork. However, the real communications in the organisation took place bilaterally, and most of the important discussions with the CEO were conducted face-to-face.


What was really lacking was trust among his colleagues. Most of the members of the team seemed to avoid dealing with the real issues, preferring veiled and guarded, often sniping, comments. And always hovering about was the issue of resource allocation. Who was going to get what? Another thing that amazed Edward was that in spite of the team’s obvious dysfunctionality, nobody was leaving. He wondered why this was the case? Was it because they were all paid so well? Could they not afford to leave?


Harem Management


As a history buff, the situation reminded Edward of a harem, where Ottoman sultans would keep members in a golden cage, creating a situation of not very subtle bondage. Movements of harem members were restricted, but even if they could leave, many members felt that life was really too comfortable to abandon. At the same time, because of the constraints put on their behavior, they would feel increasingly dead inside - a feeling Edward could identify with.


Harem management was a type of leadership that fostered a strong undercurrent of political influence. It is synonymous with the politicisation of some organisations, where various shadow individuals or groups compete fiercely for power. Harems were often directed behind the scenes by a sultan’s female relatives, particularly the all-powerful mother, known as the Valide Sultan. And then there were the eunuchs. They could be lowly servants, or rise to become third in command after the Sultan and the Grand Vizier; and often had the trust, and the ear, of the sultan.


Throughout history, harems have always been beneficial social structures for alpha males, in return offering female members a high degree of comfort and a modicum of protection. Harems also created a cooperative defense of territory and allowed for a degree of constructive socialisation. However, as we saw in the Serail Corporation, harems are no Shangri-La’s. Harem leaders need to be always on guard against others who would like to usurp their power. To add to the negatives, harem-like structures are very expensive to maintain. It raises the question of why CEOs would set up such a structure in the first place? From my experience, business leaders who prefer harem-like management systems are often prone to narcissistic dysfunctionality. They may come across as quite charming, but they know how to manipulate and exploit others for their own benefit.


In light of Edward’s experience, it is clear that there are leaders who don’t really feel comfortable in team situations and prefer running their organisations in a bilateral way. A warning sign that this may be the case is when we encounter teams with double-digit numbers - and ambiguous role assignments.

INSEAD Knowledge, 2016

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Article Comments

Beverley Keith

Dec 16, 1:20 PM

There may be a range of types of harem situations that form, depending on the 'power/influence' scrambles that might collect around a particular style of leader/capability set, perhaps. A very interesting field, most certainly. Many thanks for posting!! Season's best!

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