Scapegoat and Messiah

A friend of mine once said, “My goal is to make my position irrelevant.” She was at the time a semi-reluctant VP in a 15,000-employee organization, and she thought all the functions of her cohort were trite. Further, she has always believed that a good manager would ultimately render his/her position unnecessary. I sympathized with her philosophy, akin to Lao Zi’s Zen teaching, but always teased her that she was born in the wrong era, though I wouldn’t know what the right era would be.


One of my favorite quotes from Lao Zi (perhaps better known as Lao Tzu) regards leadership:

As for the best leaders,

the people do not notice

their existence.

The next best,

the people honor and praise,

the next, the people fear,

and the next,

the people hate…

When the best leader’s

work is done

the people say,

‘We did it ourselves!’”

— from “The Way,” ca. 6th century BC China

Of course, this poses an immediate dilemma for modern management: How do you measure “success?” let alone what constitutes “success?” In Lao Zi’s way, the best leader’s role was rendered unnecessary.

On reflecting this conundrum, I am reminded of another aspect of group dynamics: messiah and scapegoat, both often manifested in the same person who has been regarded as the group’s “leader.”

The more dysfunctional a group is, the more the members hunger for positive leadership. (Ahem, how does “negative leadership” work?) By definition, exemplary leaders are rare, and are even rarer in a dysfunctional group (axiomatically?). So, when a wise leader shows up in a dysfunctional group, he becomes a magnet for advice, approval, attention, counseling, etc. This wise leader assumes a messiah aura whether he wants it or not. The one who wants to bask in such aura – which would automatically compromise his status as “wise” – would easily and quickly get caught up in the dysfunctional gyration and ultimately run the risk of being scapgoated when something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong anyway, but is guaranteed to happen in a group stuck in its pathology. Often members in such a group are either ignorant of their pathological nature, or they don’t know how to correct the wrong even if they are aware of it.

A true “wise” leader – not necessarily in a managerial position — embedded in a dysfunction group would acknowledge immediately, at least to herself, that she alone cannot save the group. With this starting point, while she undoubtedly feels the pressure to respond to all the pleas from her direct reports or colleagues, she would not break herself putting out all the little fires. However, ironically and/or paradoxically, there are times when a leader may have to “sacrifice” himself and take on the scapegoat role, absorbing all the blame. There are times when a group may only need a symbolic figure to assume that repository function. After some catharsis, the group may be able to restart. More often than not, though, what a dysfunctional group really needs is an outsider (yes, consultant) who can help intervene in the pathological process, guide the group to recognize the various traps it has unintentionally set up for everyone (leaders included), and eventually get the group unstuck. In theory, consultants can help tremendously; in reality, the process gets messy without any guaranteed success.


Group process work is never easy, just like personal therapy. It takes time, commitment, and resources, almost always in shortage when a group, or an organization, needs them most.

Sadly, I have not found a way to get even a large-ish organization to take necessary steps to recognize and acknowledge its own ills, let alone to commit time and money to address their “issues.” Instead, there is always the tendency for the whole organization to look for that “savior” to do the impossible, be it a CEO or a top director. And when inevitably the “savior” fails, the vicious cycle perpetuates.

If you recognize these symptoms, and if you have suggestions, please share. My readers would greatly appreciate your help.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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