Our most comforting finding was that only 5% of the leaders in our sample were characterised by mistrust, egocentrism, and manipulativeness. We call these leaders Opportunists, a title that reflects their tendency to focus on personal wins and see the world and other people as opportunities to be exploited. Their approach to the outside world is largely determined by their perception of control – in other words, how they will react to an event depends primarily on whether or not they think they can direct the outcome. They treat other people as objects or as competitors who are also out for themselves.
Opportunists tend to regard their bad behaviour as legitimate in the cut and thrust of an eye-for-an-eye world. They reject feedback, externalise blame, and retaliate harshly. One can see this action logic in the early work of Larry Ellison (now CEO of Oracle). Ellison describes his managerial style at the start of his career as “management by ridicule”. “You’ve got to be good at intellectual intimidation and rhetorical bullying,” he once told Matthew Symonds of the Economist. “I’d excuse my behaviour by telling myself I was just having ‘an open and honest debate’. The fact is, I just didn’t know any better.”
Few Opportunists remain managers for long, unless they transform to more effective action logics (as Ellison has done). Their constant firefighting, their style of self-aggrandizement, and their frequent rule breaking is the antithesis of the kind of leader people want to work with for the long term. If you have worked for an Opportunist, you will almost certainly remember it as a difficult time. By the same token, corporate environments that breed opportunism seldom endure, although Opportunists often survive longer than they should because they provide an exciting environment in which younger executives, especially, can take risks. As one ex-Enron senior staffer said, “Before the fall, those were such exciting years. We felt we could do anything, pull off everything, write our own rules. The pace was wild, and we all just rode it.” Of course, Enron’s shareholders and pensioners would reasonably feel that they were paying too heavily for that staffer’s adventure.