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Dealing with the Never Wrong authority figure, part 1

Updated on September 30, 2015
Everything went wrong under Fuld's management, but none of it was his fault.
Everything went wrong under Fuld's management, but none of it was his fault. | Source

What's wrong with the Never Wrong

There is a certain type of authority figure who never, ever admits to a mistake. Is it because he never, ever makes a mistake? A human being who never makes a mistake does not exist. But a person who never admits to making a mistake not only exists, but often rises to positions of power and influence in society. Sooner or later, one will be in charge over you. And when he makes a mistake, you will suffer the consequences. It may be a parent or caregiver. If you manage to dodge that bullet, it will be a teacher, supervisor or a pastor. If you're lucky enough to have options you can sever the relationship and move to some other organization, where you may or may not encounter the same situation. The trouble is, they're everywhere.

This article is for when luck is not on your side. I'll discuss what not to do, and what to do instead. But first, let's look at the Never Wrong in detail. There are three main types of Never Wrong, divided by how they cope when it's clear they were wrong:

1. The one who denies that what he did ended badly. These are rarely in positions of power, because they're so obvious that they get fired, or even put away in mental institutions. Society will allow you to be only so delusional.

2. The one who denies that he made the wrong decision, and blames circumstances out of his control. Call this the Excuse Maker. He's a little pathetic. He lasts longer in power than the first sort. The canonical example: Richard Fuld, who presided over the collapse of Lehman Brothers. He has no remorse because he insists it wasn't his fault.

3. The one who blames underlings. That means you. This is by far the most dangerous, not only because he lasts longest but because he does the most damage to you personally. This is the Invalidator. He will tell you to your face that it's your fault, and he will not waver in the least in his opinion. Because of his authority, he will make others believe it. Every dictator and cult leader has done this. So have many prominent political figures. It works, because people buy it.

Why they're in charge

The Never Wrongs rise to positions of power, because they manage perceptions. The world is not a meritocracy, it only thinks it is. The ones who rise to prominence aren't necessarily the competent and the honest, but the ones who are perceived to be competent and honest. That means the Never Wrong will be rewarded for never admitting error, and valued far more than the person who admits he's sometimes wrong. All he has to do is keep people from realizing that he's simply not what he pretends to be. That's easier than it looks, because people are gullible. People are especially susceptible to being seduced by what's called charisma. What is charisma? It is the aura of self confidence that the Never Wrong puts out, by simply never showing not a trace of self doubt. Act like you know what you're talking about, and people will assume you know what you're talking about. Most people have a need for a leader to take responsibility and make the high level decisions. Unfortunately, the highest level decision you can make is whom to trust as a leader. Most people take the easy way out. They judge by superficialitiee. It's said that humility is a virtue, but humility is punished, not rewarded. It's the prideful who is esteemed. Sometimes even a blatant braggart will be loved. The true believers will believe, because they need to believe.

And so the Never Wrong rises to a position of authority for which he is unfit, by pretending to be fit. He lasts until he is exposed. And the third type, the Invalidator, takes longer to be exposed. He survives at the expense of those under him.

Qualities of the Never Wrong

If the Never Wrong were not believed, he would simply be pathetic. The trouble is, people believe him. His aura of self confidence is hypnotizing. And when his mistakes are undeniable, he will blame others, and he will be believed.

How do you recognize him? The hard part is not being blinded by his self confidence. If you can manage that, he's pretty obvious. The signs:

1. No humility.

2. No grace. He will not forgive others their failings.

3. No truthfulness. He has no regard for the truth at all.

4. No gratitude if you cover for him.

5. Never learns from his mistakes

The second type has an extra quality that makes him vastly more harmful:

6. He's an Invalidator - someone who always puts other people down.

Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone needs some grace. This is a fundamental truth that the Never Wrong flat out rejects. He will never acknowledge his own mistakes, unless he can do it in a way that criticizes others even more than himself. And the Invalidator in particular will never tolerate your mistakes. Quite the contrary: if you make the slightest error, he will use it against you as much as he can.

And heaven help you if you ever do the Never Wrong a favor. If he even admits you did him a favor then he's admitting he needed something from you that he couldn't do for himself. He's not going to admit that. The worst thing you can do is cover for him if he screws up. Don't expect any kind of gratitude. Don't expect him even to acknowledge that you did so. If he asks you to make him look good, don't. More on that later.

The Never Wrong really has no human decency at all. There's no room for it in his personality. However, he may put on a show on moral virtue, with platitudes or some ostentatious vegetarianism or environmentalism or some such. This behavior - known as "virtue signaling" - is just to compensate for his lack of real compassion. All his virtues are calculated to earn approval. They are simply to cover all the checks he writes on his moral bank account.

The Never Wrong has exactly two virtues: self confidence and hypocrisy. You may argue that hypocrisy is not a virtue, but to the Never Wrong's way of thinking, it is. It gains him approval, and that makes it a virtue.

Inflated ego?

What drives the Never Wrong? The theory I see most often is that the Never Wrong was raised to think he was special. (The term "narcissist" get thrown around. This a problematic term because it's so vague that it's almost meaningless. I'll resist the temptation to use it.)

This may well be true in some cases. Someone who was raised to have high self esteem is going to have very low regard for others. There used to be a theory that bullies were hurting inside and beat other children up to compensate for their own low self esteem. Recent research shows that they're just the opposite: they have too much self esteem and not enough esteem of others. I have a feeling this theory was designed to compensate for the low self esteem of those who believed it.

But from my own observations, I think there's something more to it. I grew up the Northeast Corridor region of the United States, where the local culture is all about never admitting you're wrong and always blaming others. Everyone did it, and a lot of those people showed signs of low self esteem. I don't think it has anything to do with self esteem at all, high or low. I think it has to do with self protection.

I'll get in trouble if I give examples from my own life, so I'll give a canonical example from fiction: Philip Francis Queeg of The Caine Mutiny. He was portrayed brilliantly by Humphrey Bogart, in a film that was a mostly faithful adaptation of Herman Wouk's novel. Queeg refuses to admit he's wrong and always blames others, but it's not because he's full of self confidence. He seems always on the verge of a meltdown. This is no stereotypical narcissist, whatever that means. He obsesses over strawberries because his self esteem is fragile. He's incompetent and he knows it, but he can't face the truth about himself.

The most convincing and compelling characters in fiction are not entirely fictional. They reflect a type of person we often encounter in the real world. Such is the case with Captain Queeg.

Just doing what works

A more likely explanation is that the Never Wrong is simply doing what works. People judge each other by appearances, and the ones who gain respect and power are the ones who seem good, not necessarily the ones who are good.

Part of this is projecting self confidence. If you act like you know what you're talking about, people will just assume you do know what you're talking about. Many self-deluded people have risen simply because everyone around them unthinkingly bought into their delusion. I could name plenty of politicians who have risen this way, but this would only bring down hostility from their supports. It's a problem in all democracies, and in all parties. The craziest rise to the top, because the voters are shallow and impressionable.

And no, projecting self confidence does not require self esteem. Remember this is an act, a persona. It has nothing to do with internal reality. Queeg rose to command of a ship by acting like he had everything figured out. Did this mean he had high self esteem? I think not.

All right, I'll give one example. Adolf Hitler came to power through a largely democratic process. Lots of people voted for him. Why? Two reasons. One: he projected supreme self confidence. Two: he told people what they wanted to hear. They were looking for a secular Messiah, and he passed himself off as one.

When his Reich collapsed, Hitler declared that the German people had failed him.
When his Reich collapsed, Hitler declared that the German people had failed him. | Source

The Invalidator

So where does blaming others come into this? Let's take a detailed look at the Invalidator. In his book Nasty People, Jay Carter describes the Invalidator and what he does. What he does is what works, and he does it the most effectively of all the Never Wrong types. He survives, and he survives longer than anyone else.

Projecting self confidence gets your foot in the door, but you have to fight to maintain the perception of omnicompetence. That means you deny all the failures you can deny, and shift the blame for the failures you can't deny. It's not enough to blame circumstances - that will make you look weak. You have to blame someone else. By painting the other as a villain, you portray yourself as a hero.

And if anyone tells the truth about you, you've got to call him a liar, and quick. He who shouts "liar" loudest wins this game. This is the Dolores Umbridge method of maintaining power, and it works.

In short, when the truth is not on your side the truth must be attacked - just like any other enemy. All power over people is political, whether it's office politics or an election. And all politics is perception. The truth is expendable at best.

It's commonly assumed that Hitler hated the Jews, because he ordered them slaughtered. It's far more likely he simply went along with the anti-Semitic popular sentiment because it suited his purposes. When the Never Wrong scapegoats you, it's nothing personal. He doesn't have enough regard for you to bother hating you. You're not even a person to him. You are the competition in a zero sum game. He can only win if you lose.

The bottom line is we live in a blame-or-be-blamed world. We have to dodge blame simply to survive. If we do a good job, we'll have to avoid being scapegoated. If we do a bad job, we have to avoid getting the blame we deserve. It almost doesn't matter whether we're competent or honest. All that matters is how we're perceived compared to others. The Never Wrong is a survivor. He is adapted to his environment. Why would he even bother trying to do a good job? He's got more important things to worry about, like seeming to do a good job.

He may even loot the company's finances if he can get away with it. Sometimes (not always) the Invalidator is a flat out criminal. The bad boss convinces everyone he's a good boss surrounded by incompetents. Nothing gets better, and then a whole lot of money is unaccounted for, but no one can prove anything.

Is the Invalidator a bad person? By the standards of anyone who isn't a sociopath, he most certainly is. But by his own standards, he's actually better than you. He did all right by himself, and that's his only standard. You could say that he's delusional, but only in the moral realm. Jay Carter makes the point that if you accept Hitler's premises, his arguments made perfect sense. So it is with the Invalidator's moral reasoning. And this why you can't appeal to his better nature. He simply doesn't accept the morality of decent people. There's no common ground at all.

Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

The long run

They do what works - for them. But what works for them is bad news for everyone else. They do what works - on an ongoing basis. But what works in the short run is disastrous in the long run.

I have seen organizations destroyed by too much of this. The Never Wrongs do what they must do to survive and prosper in the short term, but in so doing they destroy the very environment they've adapted to. That which can't go on forever, won't. There are also indications the Northeast Corridor - which has enjoyed great economic success - is starting to go into terminal decline. Most people don't think beyond the short term, and the Never Wrong are no exception.

Sometimes the Never Wrong suffers the consequences, and perhaps his victims can gloat at his downfall. Don't take too much comfort in this. First off, he often comes off far better than his victims. Secondly, no amount of comeuppance for the evil will repair the damage done. There's something petty about payback, and i think it boils down to this: punishing the guilty after the fact does nowhere near as much good as stopping them from doing the damage in the first place. I believe in the deterrent theory of justice: the point of punishment is to change pathological behavior. But the Never Wrong never learns, and never changes his ways. Deterrence simply doesn't work on him.

It would be nice if things didn't have to be this way, but there's no cure for it. Human nature is what it is, and the average person is an enabler of the tyrant and the fraud. That will never change. Even if you do nothing to enable the Never Wrong, countless others will put their faith in him. You're outvoted. We can't stop the toxic from rising to authority over us. All we can do is try to protect ourselves.

It's tempting to try to ameliorate this situation by fostering a culture that distrusts authority and power. The trouble with that is those who are worthy of power will receive the same suspicion as the unworthy. As long as people can't tell the difference between the trustworthy and the phony, there will be no meritocracy. There will only be a choice between gullibliity or cynicism. Or maybe both: throw the bums out, and bring in new bums.

So... how do we protect ourselves as individuals? Let's talk about that in part 2.


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