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Behind the Mask: Scarlett O’Hara

Image of Southern Battlefield

Scarlett O’Hara’s narcissistic nature and questionable moral compass enabled her to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and succeed in business while others struggled to survive. While she stepped outside of social convention herself, Scarlett used Southern values as a means to gain compliance and manipulate others.

Should sex appeal or Southern chivalry fail, Scarlett would revert to sheer, stubborn will without considering the consequences associated with her actions. She dealt with breaking the Southern moral code by simply pushing her conscience aside and declaring she’d “think about it another day.” In the end, Scarlett’s manipulative, authoritarian leadership style ruined her.

Short-term Tactics Driven by Desperation

Scarlett provides a prime example of what can happen when the wrong person wields power in turbulent times. Her behavior consistently crossed ethical boundaries. A predominantly authoritarian style (amplified by desperation to survive, or even thrive) forced others to cross those boundaries with her. People had a choice (but didn’t see it) because taking a stand would have made them flout the conventions they held so dear.

It was (apparently) so much better to gossip about Scarlett’s outrageous behavior than address serious issues head-on.

Scarlett used convict labor to operate her mills, which was legal. She allowed the mill’s manager to starve the convicts and withhold medical treatment. While cruel, those decisions cut costs. So what if the convicts got sick and died? In her mind, these men were expendable assets. Keeping costs low enabled Scarlett to offer cut-throat prices and put money in her pocket. To her, the ends justified the means—a common trait for narcissists who gain power.

Fear And Cruelty Produce Unsustainable Businesses

While it’s true that Scarlett became one of the wealthiest women in Atlanta, she ultimately lost the things she cared about most: her daughter, Ashley, and Rhett. In real life, Scarlett would eventually have been ostracized by the newly forming business community because her perception of acceptable behavior had gone so far outside the norm. Once established, the new social order would not have tolerated business practices based on a questionable moral code.

Like Scarlett, managers who make decisions out of desperation put their companies into steep downward spirals. Employees generally adhere to an organization’s power structure even when they know it’s wrong. Maybe they’re afraid of losing their jobs. Maybe they buy into the ‘desperate decisions’ and do things that are uncomfortable because they think it’s the only way out of a sticky situation. Or maybe they’re just following social convention. That’s how people like Madoff pull off Ponzi schemes. The people around them either agree with the corrupt activites or simply comply and then gossip amongst themselves about their horrible situation.

Even when it feels as if you do not have a choice, you really can take a different path. Unfortunately, doing nothing—even when you know something is wrong—often presents itself as the easiest choice of all.

I hadn’t planned to compare Scarlett O’Hara and Bernie Madoff when I started writing this post. But, when you get down to it, increasing levels of desperation lead to poorer and poorer decisions. If you decide to avoid addressing the obvious issues and stick around in questionable circumstances, your business and reputation will eventually be Gone with The Wind.

© 2012. All rights reserved.

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