The Cynic . . .

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” ― Stephen Colbert

On almost every executive team I have worked with over the past 35 years there seems to be at least one cynic.  We all recognise the cynic: the person who is not only a pessimist about new ideas, but also has the ability to discount other people’s success and good fortune.  There are many definitions of cynicism:

cyn·ic  (snk)


1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.

Most of us don’t enjoy being around the cynic for very long and they definitely aren’t motivating.  I’ve never found cynicism on the list of the behaviours that define leadership.  There are numerous popular books on leadership, such as Leadership Lessons from Genghis Khan, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Leadership Lessons from the Navy Seals, Leadership Lessons from the Godfather, and so on.  But I’ve never seen: Leadership Lessons from Cynics!

So, I have a question. How do cynics get into senior management in the first place, and why are they often tolerated by others on the team?

Mostly I have to fault poor leadership at the top and a weak corporate culture for allowing cynics to rise up into senior management.

Let’s start with those who promote the cynic in the first place.  One of the reasons the cynic gets promoted is because most managers believe that technical skills or business acumen are the most important criteria for promotion.  Behavioural traits seem to be way down the list.  Yet it is often the behaviour of the cynic that does more damage than can be compensated for by their technical or business skills.  For example, they are often the worst at developing young talent, either technical or managerial.  Their disdain for the success of others puts them in the category of the critic (at best) rather than a developer of people.  They are also poor team builders, believing that good work is all that matters and all that motivational “kumbayah” stuff is self-serving rubbish.

And then there is the belief, erroneous in my view, that the cynic is much like the “devil’s advocate” and their presence is necessary to help overcome group think and to bring in different points of view.  A big difference between the devils advocate and the cynic is that the former brings up alternative ideas and other points of view that actually help expand the thinking about the problem or situation.  The cynic, on the other hand, offers no advice or useable ideas, instead being “content with contempt”!

Another major culprit in why cynics are allowed into senior management ranks is corporate culture.  Many cultures are weak and lack clear and meaningful values to help guide behaviour.  Such weak cultures tolerate cynics because no one has the courage or the mandate to confront them and their negative behaviour.  Too often cultures have informal rules, such as: “don’t critique others, they might start in on you”, “it’s not my place to coach my peers”, “those who point out bad behaviour aren’t part of the team but just trying to get ahead”.  Cultures that allow bad behaviours to go unchecked rarely deliver high performance.  When you find a sick or weak culture in a company posting excellent results, you can bet it’s more about a favourable economy than great management.

For those CEOs with the insight and courage to confront and ultimately remove the cynics from the organisation, a clear signal is sent far and wide that negative and cynical behaviour will not be tolerated.  Professionalism, yes; cynicism, no!

And what about the cynic themselves?  What is behind this destructive behaviour?  The following quote seems to ring true for me in my dealings with teams and cynics.

Remember, inside every cynic there lies a romantic, and probably an injured one. ~Glenn Beck

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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4 Responses to The Cynic . . .

  1. Steve Borek says:

    True that regarding a sick or weak culture performing well when the economy is humming along on all cylinders. Or, when a firm has a product that lives in Blue Ocean territory with zero competition. I’ve seen companies in this scenario being run by management intoxicated with hubris.

    One time I asked a financial guy why he was so negative. He said it was his job to be pessimistic. He was a nice guy too.

    Companies hire for experience and fire for attitude. I’m a big believer in job benchmarks and letting the job tell us what type of player is best for the position.

    I hope they’re biting for you John!


  2. Raunak says:

    I so believe in prioritizing behavioral traits while recruiting.When I interviewed software programmers for a start-up, I always tested their attitude more than programming skills. One could always train them in technology but it would be impossible to build someone’s character.The best place to meet cynics is the Indian stock market.For some unknown reason, the future is always bleak according to most traders there….anyways too much of optimism isn’t too healthy either.


  3. Pingback: To Be or Not to Be…..cynical - Part 1 - Everyday Gyaan

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