Pathological organisations select executives for a willingness to sacrifice themselves and their family relationships (for large sums of money), which keeps those capable of achieving better outcomes away from the levers of power.


I wrote yesterday about pathological culture, but this post has been brewing for a lot longer..

It’s also the answer to the question posed by Benji Mauer:

What do you feel the root cause of this pathological culture is? Is it the system that rewards it? Surely it’s not “pathological” individuals.


It starts at the top

Being a CEO is a tough job. You can’t pick and choose, you can’t hide in a speciality, the buck stops here.

But oh those bucks – so many of them. In the good times you’re getting paid for performance. In the bad times you’re getting danger money for risking your career on an uncertain proposition.

But there just aren’t enough hours in the day, and the troops expect visible leadership from the front – no slacking. In a word – sacrifice.

Friends and family can wait, for now, there will be time later, and that time will be better, because of all of that money.

Perhaps I can make it up to the kids by having a family foundation, focussed on causes we all care about, and then they at least don’t have to worry about the cut and thrust of corporate life, and the sacrifice it entails.

And the ‘top team’

If the CEO needs to sacrifice, then those around them need to too. That’s table stakes for playing this game; and the rewards are pretty decent here too.

Sacrifice is also a test of loyalty.

People taking these roles will have their own rationalisation – it’s just while we turn things around – it’s just while I get on top of things – I love my job and working evenings and weekends doesn’t feel like ‘work’ to me. But this can easily run into normalisation of deviance, where the sacrifice stops being a short term compromise, and becomes more systemic.

I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

Darth Vader

But it poisons everything

People up and down the organisation start being pushed to show their own sacrifice. It’s not about the outcome right now, it’s about showing that you’re ready to pitch in when the going gets tough.

Why get your best person in Tokyo to present to the customer there when you can fly there yourself. It’s only a 36 hour round trip. And then the customer will know you really care, even though they know deep down that a General Manager isn’t going to be much use when there’s a ransomware attack, or whatever other horror lies around the corner.


Sacrifice acts as a selection filter, and lots of smart, capable people look at the sacrifice being demanded and say:

No – I’m not willing to do that

I took this job so I could support my family, not spend all my time away from them

I work to live, not live to work

We can’t constantly be at war

War demands sacrifice, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice.

War also provides a context for the great leaders of our history books to step forward and make their mark.

But war is tiring, and depleting. If we’re constantly on a war footing, then we’re constantly on the verge of burnout. We can see this from the ‘forever wars’ of the past decades – the war on drugs, the war on terror.

As a society we prefer wars that are won quickly, decisively, and with minimal blood and sacrifice (e.g. Gulf War 1) versus wars that drag on mercilessly, eventually throwing the bodies of those who weren’t even born at the outset into the meat grinder (e.g. Afghanistan).

It’s neither desirable nor healthy for civilian organisations to cosplay ‘war’ simply because we’re bereft of strong leadership examples beyond the military.

There may be times of crisis that demand short term sacrifice, but it shouldn’t be ‘normal’. Micro sacrifice when supporting the team and the greater goals demands it, rather than macro persistent sacrifice.

Times have moved on

Hierarchy, command and control are the easy to spot artefacts from successful military organisations across millennia. So it’s no surprise that these structures were copied into corporations as the world industrialised. Particularly as the military (quite literally) provided a training ground for future leaders and managers.

But we no longer have phalanxes clashing on the open battlefield, or trenches lined up against each other, or manoeuvre around fixed positions. Communications technology changed the way we fight, just as communications technology has changed the way we do business. Gene Kim observed (on the topic of sacrifice):

I find this persuasive — this attribute, and many others, is what it took to “win the internal tournament” for decades (or a century).

Which I’m sure is different than the attributes required to “win the tournament” in this century.


The military have adapted to the circumstances they find themselves in – that’s what Team of Teams is all about.

From ‘Key takeaways from Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal‘ by Beau Gordon

Companies have adapted too, and the ones that have adapted are the ones with generative cultures.

There are just a ton of People’s Liberation Armies of The Great Republic of Blah still out there, and their corporate equivalents.

The price

When an organisation selects commanders for their willingness to sacrifice, it excludes leaders who might be capable of fully realising the latent human potential that could be released with better employee engagement. That extracts a price in corporate productivity, and also a price in human misery.


If sacrifice is endured for too long it can lead to burnout, which is the word we use to describe the range of illness (physical and mental) that comes about from people working beyond their limits. This brings us back to the Whitehall study referenced by Dr Ron Westrum when describing the outcomes of pathological culture.


There’s a winners vs losers argument here that people who can endure sacrifice are the natural leaders, the ones with ‘grit’. That it’s somehow a positive characteristic. But why is it that only pathological cultures need such ‘grit’, when even bureaucratic cultures use their rules as a defence against ‘grit’, and generative cultures thrive without a constant call for it?


Too many organisations are pathological, and they’re pathological because they select for sacrifice. Selection for sacrifice may in fact be the hallmark of pathological culture.

Sacrifice is useful and necessary in a crisis, but such a crisis should be short lived, and not ‘situation normal (all fouled up)’. By selecting for sacrifice those organisations are excluding people with the skills and capabilities needed to drive better outcomes; and since the world is now full of ‘Red Queen‘ races, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

One Response to “Sacrifice”

  1. We’ve learned a few things in the co-operative world, where in the race to abandon corporate hierarchy and autocracy, it’s important to retain enough structure, but make sure we’re more explicit about behaviours and power … for example, this piece by Rich Bartlett is nicely balanced:

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