Bunga Bunga-Gate; The Final Act of the Berlusconi Show?

Yet again Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is facing another trial that is, as tradition has it, bursting with serious and scandalous allegations. The nature of these allegations is not really what is interesting about his story (though if you Google Bunga Bunga you will find plenty of details concerning the latest scandal); what is absolutely fascinating about this political figure is his demonstrated ability to not only fight back at his accusers, but to also survive these scandals with remarkable ease. But can he survive this one?

Indeed, despite previous trials and allegations (which have included accusations of corruption, abuse of power and potential links with the Mafia), Berlusconi remains Italy’s second-longest-serving prime minister after Mussolini. He thought he was almost untouchable and well supported by the nation, until recently, as it is estimated that the latest scandal has prompted one million Italians to march in more than 200 cities worldwide to protest against the damage that the prime minister is perpetrating to the country’s reputation. The Premier has also lost the support of a number of key political allies and his popularity is finally in decline, with ratings falling to their lowest level since he came to power (33%).

There were, of course, some high points of his leadership (the effective handling of L’Aquila earthquake crisis, as well as saving troubled state airline Alitalia from bankruptcy), but these achievements will be inevitably lost amidst an ocean of scandals, political gaffes and accusations.

Could we have ever predicted that this story would end this way? The answer is yes, absolutely. In fact, there are three important leadership lessons to be learned as we watch the final acts of the Berlusconi saga.

Firstly, his story is one of classic (almost textbook-like) leadership derailment, a topic that is dear to Hogan consultants and subject matter experts in leadership and management. If we follow the insightful taxonomy provided by the Hogan Development Survey, which lists 11 leadership derailers, we can easily identify the behaviours that most typify Berlusconi’s leadership style, allowing us to speculate about his derailing tendencies.

He is often charming and amusing when speaking publicly, using humour and fun (often at the expense of others) as a shield to deflect criticism during interviews. He has also demonstrated a strong tendency to test the limits (we only need to consider the ever growing number of political gaffes to make that observation) and ignore rules (even by making his own), behaviours that are typical of the Mischievous leadership derailer.

Mr Berlusconi is also known to constantly crave public and national attention, behaving in an excessively attention-seeking and self-centred manner (particularly when surrounded by his international peers, or even when in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen), behaviours that are typical of the Colorful leadership derailer.

He has also frequently vowed revenge and punishment for his prosecutors, alleging that all trials and accusations directed at him were part of a conspiracy orchestrated by left-wing politicians (behaviours that are commonly associated with the Skeptical leadership derailer).

Secondly, like most leadership derailment scenarios, this is the story of a leader who is unwilling to give up his power, a leader who has become completely uninterested in his followers and unconcerned about their best interests, and whose only goal is to preserve his political status. It is not uncommon for derailing leaders to overstay their welcome.

Thirdly, this story provides further evidence that demonstrates how “dark side” personality characteristics can indeed support individual career advancement (i.e. “getting ahead”), but at the expense of others (often followers and peers). This is a classic leadership mistake as, by forgetting that we still need to “get along” once we have reached the top, these leaders ultimately end up alienating and disengaging their followers, losing the support required to prevent leadership failure.

Regardless of the outcome of this latest trial, the events leading to it and the damage to Berlusconi’s reputation were easily predictable; it was all too much like a disaster waiting to happen. Yet, no one but Berlusconi himself could have prevented it; unfortunately, he lacked the strategic self-awareness required to identify derailing tendencies and modify his behaviour accordingly. Just like many other leaders who have derailed before him, Berlusconi is facing the consequences of letting his “dark side” run loose.

The fundamental lesson to be learned is that leaders who fail to manage their “dark side” (and their respective reputations) will inevitably, and I repeat inevitably, derail, leaving a trail of embarrassment and destruction behind them.

Let’s not forget, however, the role that context plays in these circumstances. Being an extremely powerful and rich person can exacerbate these destructive tendencies, as leadership positions come with plenty of discretional behaviour and lack of honest and objective feedback from peers and subordinates. As Lord Acton once said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

It is perhaps Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s ex-ally, who encapsulates this story brilliantly by stating that the Premier consistently “confuses leadership with absolute monarchy.”

So, now that you have read this story, I will ask you a question. Before you hire your next CEO or promote your next leader, wouldn’t you want to know the risks associated with their personality? Considering the final acts of the Berlusconi show, I certainly would.

by Andrea Facchini
Business Pyschologist & Guest Blogger