When I found myself in the unlikely position of President/CEO of a major New England non-profit, I was immediately struck by the subtle seductions that accompanied the title. I was suddenly offered more deference by people I had worked with for decades. My words of support and encouragement carried more weight. No one ever interrupted me. Bad news was withheld, in the interest of “not bothering” me. A hush would come over the room when I entered.
Perennially suspicious of hierarchical systems, I tried to remain conscious of the impact these deferences were having on me. It is challenging not to enjoy how easy it is to influence others, the way doors open effortlessly, the respect I was afforded inside and outside the organization. I could avoid the things I didn’t enjoy by delegating them. I could feast on the frequent flattery that is part of the daily diet of a CEO.
Perhaps the most powerful pitfall is the power to manipulate, whether it’s influencing how stories are told, or leveraging desired behavior.
As committed as I was to being authentic, collaborative, transparent, and curious, those “ideal” characteristics of a 21st century leader, I know I fell prey, at times, to the trappings of power, as everyone does.
So the adage that power can corrupt remains alive and well in our world. The self-aggrandizing, narcissistic behavior of our current president is an extreme example.
Leadership, though, is still necessary, as organizations face the complexity and dilemmas inherent in the contemporary organizational landscape. So how do we balance the pitfalls of power with the need for innovative leadership?
Research tells us is that the most successful leaders are more committed to service than to their own personal success. They know how to listen deeply. They build a culture of collaboration, allowing others to shine. They are willing to surface their own vulnerabilities, and encourage others to do so. Most important, they commit themselves and their organizations to an ever-unfolding process of learning, welcoming mistakes as clues to where in the organizational system there are opportunities for improvement.
One of my mentors warned that often the organization’s leader is often the last to know what’s really going on in an organization, because of the desire, fear-based or not, to protect her from bad news. This classic organizational dynamic is not helpful.
In my leadership-coaching practice, I often hear the following refrain about a challenging employee: “It’s her personality! I can’t expect her to change!” I question this assumption regularly. Anyone exhibiting difficult personality traits that interfere with job success deserves the chance to work on them. I know I have done yeoman’s work to address my own personality challenges, thanks to supervisors along the way who took the trouble to tell me about them. But what of the person at the top lacks humility or the capacity for listening and learning? Is that remediable?
Through years of leadership consulting and coaching, I have encountered many organizational leaders who learn humility through the school of hard knocks. In the process they discover that self-knowledge and reflection are critical pathways to effectiveness. They learn to try to make it easier for people to give them feedback, by asking, by checking out reactions to their behavior, and by letting people know what they are working on personally to improve their leadership. And they devote themselves to developing the leadership strengths of those around them. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Leaders need a posse of people, in and outside the organization, who will be honest with them and support their learning process.
So, leaders, beware of the inevitable seductions of your office.
And don’t--ever--go it alone.