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Leadership: Its Trappings Lead Good People Astray

[We have been filing great articles we found online throughout 2011, and are sharing our impressions of some of the best of them as we start 2012. Here is another installment.]

The best intentioned new leader can “lose his way” as the comforts of power and prestige create a mindset of elevated personal talent and knowledge. We work hard in all of our leadership training to break this mindset, as an elevated sense of self-worth is usually counterproductive in building a highly productive relationships with co-workers.

We found support for our position in an opinion piece posted by Harvard Business School Professor Bill George. In it, George notes that as people settle into leadership roles, their behavior gets more outwardly confident, which can lead leaders to overwhelm their subordinates and wall themselves off from reality (or “the truth” as we often call it here at Bovo-Tighe.)

The leadership trap

What we like about George’s thinking is that he emphasizes that this behavior on the part of the leader is not a conscious act: It results simply through the power of the leaders’ own confidence and how they present themselves in public. Strength of conviction and personality are key drivers of how executives rise through the ranks (results aside) so you cannot disconnect that energy and commitment from how a manager chooses to lead. However, that person must learn to step outside their own head regularly to assess how their behavior affects the productivity of his or her team, and how much it may inhibit what we call Foundations of Excellence (that is: Unshakable Trust, the Pursuit of Truth and Communication that Counts.)

“Leaders who lose their way are not necessarily bad people,” writes George. “Rather, they lose their moral bearings, often yielding to seductions in their paths. Very few people go into leadership roles to cheat or do evil, yet we all have the capacity for actions we deeply regret unless we stay grounded.”

While most people value fair compensation for their accomplishments, few leaders start out seeking only money, power, and prestige. Along the way, the rewards—bonus checks, newspaper articles, perks, and stock appreciation—fuel increasing desires for more.

This, concludes George, creates a deep desire to keep it going, sometimes even to the point of breaching the ethical standards that previously governed their conduct.

George found a good quote from Novartis chairman Daniel Vasella (told Fortune magazine):

“…for many of us the idea of being a successful manager—leading the company from peak to peak, delivering the goods quarter by quarter—is an intoxicating one. It is a pattern of celebration leading to belief, leading to distortion. When you achieve good results… you are typically celebrated, and you begin to believe that the figure at the center of all that champagne-toasting is yourself.”

The key point that George makes that we liked: “When leaders focus on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction, they lose their grounding (which leads them to) reject the honest critic who speaks truth to power.”

Self-reflection: A path to more effective leadership

George notes that an executive that is able to keep the right perspective of his or her role within the organization will generate more productive work from those with whom the executive works. We agree. Keeping leaders grounded is a core principle of Bovo-Tighe, and that includes making them more aware of how their outward behavior affects . It keeps their focus outward, on the collective goals and accomplishments of the organizations. It leads to the sharing of credit and rewards, and keeps an attitude of “first among equals.” Great leaders understand that everyone on their team is both responsible for actions and results, and should participate in the rewards.

Executives cannot best accomplish this self-reflection alone, however. That is where great coaching and mentoring play a strong role, and where HR plays an active role in the process.

In every organization there must be a hierarchy in a decision-making process, but the people within that hierarchy must all maintain a mindset that they are not infalliable, that everyone can contribute meaningfully to making progress, and that titles by themselves do not confer extra talent or ability on anyone.

Professor George has a lot more to say about the psychology of leaders who had to fight and scrap to get to the top, and he gets a bit hyperbolic in his descriptions, but overall gave us a good reminder about how leaders must work hard to stay grounded and (relatively) humble in how they handle their responsibilities if they want to receive the maximum contribution from those with whom they work.

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