Have you ever heard the expression “It’s lonely at the top?”
We all have, because it’s true. Leadership is tough. Expectations are high. And sometimes you don’t have all the answers.
There are times when leaders need to face up to some of the demanding realities of the job and realize making the toughest decisions means resisting a set of very real temptations. In his book The Five Temptations of a CEO, Patrick Lencioni illustrates some of the major challenges of business and leadership, and describes how leaders often need to make difficult choices to meet them.
The Five Greatest Temptations Leaders Face Are:
1. Choosing Invulnerability Over Trust
Leaders often have a difficult time admitting when they don’t know the answers, or more often, when they are wrong. They tend to keep their greatest weaknesses a secret from others. This is a mistake.
When leaders willingly expose their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and reach out to their key executives and employees, they establish an environment that is based on trust and one in which employees feel valued for the expertise they are being given the opportunity to share.
One of the worst things appearing invulnerable can do is create an environment where it is not okay to make mistakes. If you appear to your employees and key executives as though you never make mistakes yourself, then they will be afraid to screw up in front of you. As anyone who has ever become good at something knows, learning happens through making mistakes. So by allowing your employees to see that you make mistakes, the workplace becomes a place where mistakes made in the service of learning and growing are okay.
Another problem with invulnerability is the creation of environment where not knowing something is unacceptable. If your employees never see you admit that you don’t know something, then they will be prone to behaving the same way. This can become really toxic. As a leader, you depend on your employees and team members for their valuable knowledge. If your employees don’t feel like they can admit when they don’t know something, then it becomes impossible to tell when what they are saying can really be trusted. They might be saying something that they don’t really know to be true just so that they don’t have to admit their ignorance. But if they see you admit that you don’t know something, they will be more inclined to do the same thing.
For these reasons, choosing to be vulnerable – to trust and in turn be trusted – is a critical first step towards being an effective leader.
2. Choosing Harmony Over Productive Conflict
Building on the premise that trust has been established in an organization, CEOs may be tempted to prioritize the maintenance or creation of a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace, where the ultimate objective becomes employee happiness and a pleasant atmosphere.
While this seems like a reasonable goal, it can be detrimental to the growth of your business. A pleasant atmosphere is nice, but it can mean stagnation. If conflicts never arise, then there is never an opportunity to shake things up, and as a result, develop a new and perhaps more effective way of doing business.
Consider this, you have a team that is working very well together on a project. Everyone is getting along and everyone knows their place in the decision making structure. What happens when someone who is not at the top of the structure knows they have a better way of attacking the problem the team is working on, but doesn’t want to bring it up because they don’t want to rock the boat? Does anyone benefit?
In this scenario, the harmony of the team is preserved. So immediately, it might seem like everyone benefits – they all go home happy. As a result however, the whole team has missed a valuable learning opportunity. If the idea was a good one, nobody will ever know about it. If it was a bad one, then the person who had it won’t come to see why and improve their thinking. The point is, a discussion of the idea should have taken place. These discussions don’t happen if people are afraid to disagree for the sake of a pleasant work environment.
Promoting harmony in the workplace over productive conflict robs the company of new and potentially valuable ideas. It also robs employees of opportunities for learning and personal growth. With trust between employees at all levels established, productive conflict allows for continuous discussion about organizational failures and conflicts of opinion on the team. This means that everyone is always learning, growing and contributing by evaluating, challenging and reformulating the way that they work together.
3. Choosing Certainty Over Clarity
When someone chooses certainty over clarity, this means they wait until they are absolutely certain about something before they make a decision. While this is a very useful skill in a lot of fields and disciplines, it is not always possible for the CEO. Companies become paralyzed and lose momentum when those at the top aren’t clear about what the company is doing because they aren’t certain. One of the most important skills of a CEO is being able to clearly articulate the vision of the company. Decisions should then flow from this.
The business world can be confusing – it’s the CEO’s job to carve a clear path out of ambiguity. Delaying a decision because the ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ path is not obvious might seem like the best course of action. In reality, its much better to be clear with your employees about what it is you are trying to do. Also be clear about what you know and don’t know. Your employees will respect this and be energized by it. They will buy into the project and help you out. If you dither, waiting until all the knowledge is in before making a call, your employees won’t know what you need to make the best decision. By choosing to establish clarity over demanding certainty, leaders create a forum where everyone’s input is valued, and great minds come together.
4. Choosing Popularity Over Accountability
This one is by far the most common, especially in smaller companies where the CEO has a relatively close personal relationship with employees. Its obviously tempting to have people like you. But if you are not giving people the feedback they need because you are afraid they won’t like you, you’re depriving them of a learning opportunity and hurting your company.
As a CEO, you should be focused on results – it’s up to you to make sure the job gets done. This means that sometimes its your job to hold someone accountable for their behavior or their failure to deliver results. But this is not the same thing as being an invulnerable disciplinarian or needlessly harsh. People only learn from their mistakes if someone points them out. In a work situation based on trust and productive conflict, this sort of thing must be commonplace. When you have to step in and hold someone accountable, this is for the good of the employee and the company. On the other hand, reluctance to hold a person accountable for their behavior on the basis of friendship can damage both the organization’s success and a leader’s reputation.
5. Choosing Status Over Results
Successful CEOs are those who do not worry about public praise or recognition. Their success is very much linked to the success of the organization first and foremost. A CEO that measures success in terms of rank and social status, rather than the company’s performance under their direction, wrongly differentiates organizational success from personal/professional success. The two should be considered one and the same.
Avoiding these temptations is not rocket science. That said, its not easy either. It may not take a Ph.D., but it does take a healthy dose of discipline, courage, humility, and a willingness to make things simple. Remember, professional development and achieving success as a leader is a process, not just an idea, and we all have to start at the beginning. Only with a greater understanding of the traps that exist – and the optimal behaviors that can take their place – can leaders reach the top of their game. I recommend this book all the time to CEO’s as a tool for helping in this pursuit. Just about anyone can benefit from giving it a read. Overcoming these temptations is a great way to kick start your journey towards becoming a more effective leader.