One of my favourite books is “The Five Temptations of a CEO” by Patrick Lencioni. Written more than a decade ago in a refreshing, simple and razor-sharp style, the book is a leadership fable that reminds us that success as a leader comes down to practicing few and simple behaviors that are more painful than we think to master.
In few words, Lencioni identifies five key pitfalls for leaders: Choose status over results, popularity over accountability, certainty over clarity, harmony over conflict, and invulnerability over trust. These lessons are as relevant today as ever.
But complexity is increasing. No doubt. The global market is moving fast among uncertainty and fierce competition. The market is “producing” a new wave of young leaders. Especially in technology. New issues come up too. In other words, there is no option to sit still for leaders and their organisations.
In this article, I am going to expand on some of these behaviors as well as to add other key mistakes to avoid based on my personal experience working with and for leaders.
Why Status Gets in the Way to Success
Several years ago, quite early in my career, I met a CEO with whom I spent quite some time for business reasons. He worked and fought hard for decades to get to that point. He took tough decision. He was an ideal corporate leader.
After the promotion to the CEO though, he changed. He cared more about his status. Less about results and improve performance. He tried to avoid conflicts, take risky decisions, challenge himself. He created for himself a very comfortable situation by staying as much as possible out of troubles. He isolated himself. Most of his time was spent behind curtains in his fancy office.
Not surprisingly, his tenure didn’t last long. Sadly, his sacrifices turned into ashes.
Why did this happen? He stopped focusing on results as main priority. He felt he achieved his personal career goal. He got there. He arrived where he wanted to be. His new focus was to protect and preserve his status. Any challenge situation or decision to make was just unwanted risks for him.
This is common in organisations. Very frustrating, as status might turn achievers into low-value individuals. Reaching the top shouldn’t make us safe. Actually, this should make us thrilled and excited but also worried and concerned. There are more responsibilities, more stakeholders to deal with, people who wait to be led. It is fascinating but let’s be clear. The success is only based on outcomes and results.
The Right Balance Between Ego and Results
One typical consequence of high status is an overdevelopment of a personal ego.
One thing about the current society is clearly the raised level of narcissism. Not just in business. I am sure we can pick up a number of examples from current leaders in each country. But in business in particular, this doesn’t look good for leaders at all.
It is common nowadays to deal with very arrogant leaders and managers. They speak highly about themselves, what they did, what they do, what they can do. They don’t listen well. They have the urgency to interrupt. In other words, it’s all about them. But the market doesn’t care. Neither the shareholders. What they care is about results across multiple metrics and dimensions. And personal ego is not one of those.
It goes without saying this behaviour has also a negative impact on the organisation and the employees. In fact, most of these leaders are not vulnerable enough with their peers and direct reports. This is uncomfortable for them. Not safe. It’s like losing credibility in front of them. Therefore, they don’t want to be challenged and their level of trust is very low. As a consequence, peers and employees disengage and don’t feel safe to open up to them. Not surprisingly, this leads to the creation of a toxic environment where things remain unsaid as fear prevails.
On the other hand, though, a low ego is not good as well. Organisations need strong leaders able to create a vision, generate results, protect the organisation and their people as well as influence stakeholders and the markets. They need to speak up, feel proud of what they do, act as role models for their people.
What’s then? The key is to find the right sweet spot between ego, results and relationships. With the right balance, the ability to influence others increase exponentially.
There is no Time to Make Yourself Comfortable
The third area that I really believe is pivotal for personal success is to create a mindset that allows high-achievers and leaders to explore relentlessly new opportunities for their personal growth. This should lead a behavioural change. Ideally, a life-long goal. This worked for me and I have to say for most of the thought leaders I know.
In fact, something I learn in my career from the outset, and often recommend to my clients, is always to look for challenges, either when looking for new roles or after landed a new one. To me, a career shouldn’t be an easy journey. It should be challenging with tough decisions to take, fast-changing dynamics, demanding contexts, bosses and teams, different cultures.
Yes. This can be painful. Stressful. Tough. But it simply generates a better return.
Things are different now. Markets are shaken, very few guaranteed returns, we see the lower-than-ever average tenure of CEOs. Large companies become small. Garage startups become billion companies in few years. MBAs become the norm. Not having international experience is a no/go for recruiters.
We should evolve. Never stop learning, challenging ourselves, being curious, improving how we do stuff. It isn’t just for the role and the responsibilities we have. It’s for us. It’s a way to get ready for the next step. The next challenge. Because we never know when this is going to happen.
Having this sense of urgency to become a better version of ourselves isn’t safe and isn’t for everybody. But if you are like me, I trust you appreciate the only way to get there is to stay permanently out of our comfort zone.
If this is combined with the relentless desire to get results for ourselves and our organisations, to forget about our status, lower our ego and become vulnerable, our leadership level will raise extraordinarily with unexpected positive return on our lives.
Not only on our careers.