Washington

Government shutdown's biggest villain? Pride.

October 9, 2013: 9:14 AM ET

The basis for the stalemate has moved away from public concern and has become firmly rooted in lawmakers' self-interest and face-saving.

United States Capitol West Facade

FORTUNE -- It sounded more like a Mean Girls taunt than political discourse: "We're not going to be disrespected," Marlin Stutzman, a Republican congressman from Indiana told the Washington Examiner last week. "We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."

And from the other side of the aisle: "We are winning ... It doesn't really matter to us" how long the shutdown lasts "because what matters is the end result," a senior Obama Administration official told the Wall Street Journal last week.

These smack-your-forehead comments are brought to you by pride and its ugly cousin narcissism. As the shutdown progresses well into its second week, the basis for the stalemate has moved away from ideological rationale and public concern and has become firmly rooted in lawmakers' self-interest and face-saving.

"Pride," says Michael Useem, a professor of management at the Wharton School, "is a great enemy of decision making."

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To call politicians prideful or even narcissistic is like saying a racecar driver has a penchant for thrills or an attorney likes to be right. "Anyone who ends up in a leadership position is self-serving," says Thomas DeLong, a management professor at Harvard Business School. And that's not always a bad thing.

A study in the journal Personnel Psychology published in 2010 found that a narcissistic leader is likely to have bold vision and is "able to comfort individuals seeking a strong leader who instills them with confidence, especially in contexts in which difficult challenges need to be overcome."

But trouble arises when a leader who has succeeded at advocating for himself can't switch to listening to others and acting on their behalf. The problem is compounded when those who surround a leader knows exactly what he wants to hear, says DeLong, like, for instance, when a congressman is surrounded by aides and colleagues. There's an echo chamber where there should be a house of mirrors.

A great leader is able to "self monitor and self regulate" the balance between pride and making decisions for the greater good, says Delong, pointing to former Xerox (XRX) CEO Anne Mulcahy, who led the company through a painful turnaround. "She held the company together as it was going under. She managed from essence not from image," he says.

On the flip side, Delong says, "the more frightened and more positioned you become, the less self-aware you are." Welcome to Washington, where the prospect of losing endorsements and reelection support from your colleagues is lurking in every corner, particularly in the House.

As unprecedented as the current stalemate and lackluster leadership might seem, the patterns and processes of pride muddling quality leadership is endemic in all organizations, says David Larcker, director of Stanford Business School's Center for Leadership Development and Research. "They just happen to be scaled up by a factor of a gazillion at the moment."

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That a country's financial security -- instead of a company's -- is hanging in the balance doesn't make the predicament any easier to solve.

Meaningful consequences are what change the behavior of individuals who land on the narcissism spectrum, says Wendy Behary, director of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and author of Disarming the Narcissist. And at this point, the threat of a U.S. credit default doesn't seem to be powerful enough.

Unless a third-party mediator pops up to solve the impasse, DeLong says, our only hope for loosening the stalemate that's paralyzing the government and keeping 800,000 federal workers at home is for one person to look beyond her pride and image and suggest a course that's different from the current hardline positions. At least in an environment where so many are stuck in the trappings of their own self-interest, effective leadership will be easy to recognize.

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