Transforming sycophants by light of human brilliance

[syc·o·phant – ˈsikəˌfant,ˈsikəfənt/ noun. A person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain an advantage. See: ingratiating, fawning, servile, groveling, subservient, cringing, humble-acting, hypocritical, insincere, gushing, effusive, glib, smooth, slick, slippery, oily, greasy, smarmy, slimy, parasitic, non-authentic, false, fake.
— Merriam-Webster]


The code for human being resides deep inside us — the most important synthesis of DNA — the program for our human brilliance. It is perhaps the core program we emerge to run at birth, by Nature, with nurture. And yet, since the code is within us, why do so few of us manifest and sustain our human brilliance long enough for our unique and singular genius to characterize our lives? Isn’t this one of the core questions for human civilization? Consider the profound potential for leaders, teams, and nations everywhere?

For many people, somewhere between birth and death comes the distraction of insecurity so compelling that the notion of inner greatness is reduced to embarrassment and disbelief, preempting the sheer consideration of personal brilliance. After that, our response to the suggestion of our brilliance prompts self-consciousness, confusion, or denial. Regarding their status to be permanently doubtful, some choose — like remora sharksuckers— to strategically adhere to another’s status.

The availability of team members’ full potential totals toward greatness — and the opposite is also true. In “public spaces,” we are given ample opportunities to gaze into the magnificence of human brilliance in teams that offer windows for witnessing — in sports, the arts, and the political theater. They serve as labs for learning. As we watch the public plays, we compare the characters and types to our less public workplaces. Yet, to make a constructive difference, an effort is required.

The remarkable character on the team effectiveness stage today is the sycophant. We are living in the age of sycophantic delusion.

It is all too common to witness the proliferation and absurd persistence of the subculture of sycophants who take “sucking up” to new lows daily. If it weren’t for the severe opportunity cost, it still would be sad, or silly, or extreme in other ways, as a parody of achieving behavior — a spoof on loyalty, teamwork, and respectability.

Life often promotes our sense of insufficiency. Then insecurity grows like killer weeds blocking out the aspiration for career hope and distinction. Often people occupy workspace cultures with despair and disengagement. If you read this with doubt, perhaps you haven’t understood the substantiating data describing the high percentage of disengaged employees in the workplace. Everyone would be pleased to manifest their creative brilliance. But, as consulting firm Bain & Company reports, “We found that less than 15% of people we surveyed would answer that their job inspired them.”

Human insecurity is a major ingredient for personal and organizational effectiveness and productivity. A narcissistic personality disorder is based on early developmental insecurity. Sycophantic behavior is an insecure response to personal doubts and insufficiency. Sychophants supplement their sense of inadequacy by adoring those they judge to have far greater power, regardless of this assessment’s wisdom. 

The narcissist morphs into a megalomaniac persona. The sycophant becomes a disproportionate disciple of a person in higher authority, probably a narcissist. Narcissism is a power grab. The sycophant is a power borrower. In the community, both are drains and impostors.

Sycophants come in a variety of needs and types. Some hide their insecurity better than others, but most are convincing parasites. Each of them has resigned temporarily from personal greatness, adopting a strategy of proximate superiority instead. How sad.

The Type-A-sycophant may be convinced of the nominal leader’s greatness and acts with absolute conviction about that higher authority’s ethical and spiritual superiority. These sycophants say and express it is a testament not to truth but to rigorous support of literally anything the nominal leader does. The A-sycophant creatively and instantly embellishes and promotes the higher authority’s absurdity. They reframe failure to “success.” They aim to keep company with the persona of authority, regardless of the breach. We have seen such sycophants as Vice President, Press Secretary, and Counselor to the President, to name a few in public view.

The Type-B-sycophant is terrified by threats of consequence for disloyalty to the nominal leader — even while his or her job obligates to thousands of voting constituents. At times we see such sycophants’ discomfort with the nominal leader’s naked grossness, yet they persevere to find words of praise as cameras record their cowardly compliance. We have seen such sycophants in the Attorney General’s role, the Senate Majority Leader, and the President’s Attorney. In contrast, we have the example of the late Senator John McCain.

Then, there are the common Type-C-sycophants, silent in the shadows seeking obscurity. They are determined not to give the nominal leader an excuse for reprisal, venomous spew, or torrid tweet. This is the C-sycophant’s common mold, for most don invisibility cloaks, hoping not to be noticed, or interviewed, or grouped with the A or the B-sycophants — fearing loss of anonymity. Fear prods them, and survival is their goal. They do not gaze into mirrors for fear of humiliation.

Sycophants are insecure and self-absorbed. Some are florid narcissists. Most are sociopathic. If there is a salaciousness to being political, the sycophant will teach that course.

Authentic leaders do not need sycophants, and I have often seen authentic leaders dismiss sycophants out of principle or points of virtue (completely confusing the sycophants, too). Past Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis toughly avoided sycophants, feeling that judgment is best tested with those who clearly speak truth to power. Pope Francis lives in a world of symbolism and ceremony but favors humility and significant acts over the political protocol. Authentic leaders offer no stage for sycophants to play. Their credo is the worthy mission or the relevant core human values, not the man or woman’s vanity, fame, or fortune.

Sometimes things must get increasingly mediocre and turn very bad — a despairing decline that forecasts catastrophe — before we acknowledge the desperate state of things, the new norm of dysfunction. Nationally, this is where we stand today, as factors limiting human brilliance preside so profoundly in our world disrupt us, anger us, inconvenience us, and prompt long-appropriate revulsion. It is now an unavoidable problem.

We breathe easier when observing grudging signs of social willingness to change stupefying culture conditions — those sustained under the authority of benumbing authoritarian leaders who bred and slopped their sycophants like litters of tiny political swine.

Increasingly, we are witnessing the Feminine Devine rising to defeat repressive norms. Wisdom’s betting this is sustainable.

I believe the new year can offer us hope: That authentic leaders will act clearly and decisively for worthy missions and universal core human values. And that the C-sycophants will pivot accordingly to emerge as brilliant leaders, so aligned.

Cultures of authentic leadership brilliance become wellsprings of authentic human brilliance. To reduce the sycophants from emerging into the world, treat children with love and respect, so years later they don’t have the desperate need to stand in the proximity of another person’s authority, as dysfunctional pathetic parasites of worthiness and meaning. The sycophant is one of the saddest and most stunted ways adolescents persist into later life, seldom to mature as full-fledged adults.

Sycophant Entomology:  First attested in 1537. From Latin sȳcophanta (“informer, trickster”), from Ancient Greek συκοφάντης (sukophántēs), itself from σῦκον (sûkon, “fig”) + φαίνω (phaínō, “I show, demonstrate”). The gesture of “showing the fig” was a vulgar one, which was made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, which is itself symbolic of a σῦκον(sûkon), which also meant vulva. The story behind this etymology is that politicians in ancient Greece steered clear of displaying that vulgar gesture, but urged their followers sub rosa to taunt their opponents by using it.