Ghetto Mentality in the corporate World

A ghetto is a part of a city, especially a slum in which members of minority groups are isolated because of social, legal, or economic pressure.  Ghettos are associated with scarcity. In his famous book “The 7 Habits of Effective People”, Stephen Covey differentiates between an abundant and scarcity mentality. He encourages people to have abundance or “win-win” mindset. The focus of this article is to help leaders identify when and how they have been acting from a scarcity or “win-lose” mentality.

The ghetto mentality is one in which people’s mindset about life is informed by poverty and fear. Although the people may have physically moved out of the ghetto, they are still psychologically stuck.  This mentality is also evident in the way leaders behave. I should also mention that it is not only the people who grew up in the ghettos who have this kind of mentality. However, those who grew up in rich neighborhoods can also have a ghetto mentality.

The World is the Ghetto


In 1977 George Benson released the song “The Ghetto”. He outlines the lifestyle of people who live in ghettos. I am going to use some of the lyrics to describe certain behavior patterns displayed by leaders with a ghetto mentality.

  1. I wouldn’t shoot you bro, but I’d shoot that fool if he played me close and tried to test my cool”.

Leaders with a ghetto mentality are feared. They are aggressive and lose their temper easily. Even though they are able to put a mask, and be friendly, everyone knows not to challenge them.  They believe that they have to be right and perfect all the time. They want to always be in control of their emotions. Vulnerability is a swear word. They also want to control how others think and behave. These leaders have an invisible wall around them. They do not let people in their space. They feel they always have to protect themselves, lest they lose their cool.

  1. “Every day I wonder just how I’ll die. Only thing I know is how to survive”

Living in a gang infested area is very dangerous. Leaders with a ghetto mentality never feel safe in their organizations. If it was possible to have bodyguards, they would. They always have spies or informants around the organization. These leaders do not trust anyone. They see other Departments, teams and colleagues as rival gang members who need to be destroyed before they attack. They live in fear that everything they have worked hard for may be destroyed or could crumble down at any moment. And they protect their turf.

These leaders do not understand team work and collaboration. They find it difficult to embrace interdependence. They will do anything to get that promotion or bonus. Such leaders are only focused on making themselves look good, even at the expense of others. Their main goal is to survive at all costs.

  1. “There’s only one rule in the world, and that’s to take care of you, only you and yours”

Due to their lack of trust, these leaders do not understand their role of developing and empowering their followers. They see everyone as competitors who are there to take bread out of their mouths. These leaders do not feel guilty about stealing other people’s ideas. Concepts such as succession planning are strange to them. They are always busy with some or other project. They find mentoring or coaching others to be a waste of time.

  1. “Mama’s next door getting high even though she’s got five mouths to feed. She’s rather spend her money on a h-i-t”.

Leaders with a ghetto mentality get easily addicted to power. Experts maintain that power produces a pleasure-inducing neurological response. It motivates people to desire establishing ever-greater control over others. Just like a mother who forgets her children for the next score, these leaders also do not care about their team members. Life revolves around getting the next fix. The most important thing is how they get the next adulation and power. Even when they see that they are failing and the organization is crumbling because of them, they refuse to resign and let others lead. So status and power become a drug that they find hard to wean themselves out.

  1. Even though they put us down and call us animals, we make real big bugs and buy brand new clothes. We drive fancy cars, make love to stars. Young kids grow up and that’s all they know”.

Gangsters are known to be stylish dressers. They wear branded clothes and drive expensive cars. Young kids growing up in such neighborhoods are attracted into the lifestyle. They associate appearance and material possessions with success. This kind of mentality is also evident in the boardrooms. There is nothing wrong with caring about your appearance as a leader, in fact it is encouraged. The biggest problem comes in when leaders become so focused in their image and forget to work on the inner person. Leaders with a ghetto mentality measure their success by their material possessions. They thrive on receiving compliments about their dress sense, where they live and the cars they drive. They have a tendency of surrounding themselves with weaklings who treat them as demigods.

Unfortunately these leaders produce leaders who also have a ghetto mentality. The young leaders do not know any better. They think that such behavior is normal.

Hope for the Future

Having a ghetto mentality is equal to being in prison. You always need to put up your guard and defend yourself. It can be very tiring. The opposite of which is to have an abundant mentality. This mentality enables leaders to flourish instead of floundering. Indeed, there are large numbers of self-help books written to equip leaders with the techniques of moving from the ghetto mentality to an abundance mindset. Leaders are encouraged to appoint a coach that will help them to identify their own mental prisons. The next article will be focusing on how leaders with an abundance mentality behave.

Tshamani Mathebula

Tshamani Mathebula

I am an experienced process facilitator whose purpose in life is to develop people so that they can be the best they can be in their personal and professional lives. I have 15 years experience in human resource development, organisational development, change management, culture transformation, employee engagement, graduate development, leadership development and coaching. I am passionate about leadership development and transformation, and my area of study is focused on transformational leadership and high performance culture.

Ghetto Leadership: Lessons from the Slums.

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