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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Is it lonely at the top by design?

Why can't leaders balance boldness with humility? USA Today has a great story today about CEOs and their reluctance to accept criticism.

It's remarkable to me how many leaders from various segments of society consider their role to be a top-down, one-way relationship with their subordinates. As I mentioned yesterday, I believe that effective leadership requires service and sacrifice, not arrogance and isolation. In my opinion, humility isn't being a wimp. It's about facing and acknowledging contrary schools of thought and legitimate criticisms. Those skills require courage, and they are essential for anyone holding a leadership position, yet they are extremely tough to master and to maintain. At least that's what a PsyMax solutions study found recently, and I can't argue.

I admire Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley, who is featured in the article, for being willing to accept 360-degree feedback from his coworkers, even though it had indicated that he is "impatient" and "chronically late to meetings." Lafley says he listens because "feedback leads to growth." I think he is absolutely right.

Unfortunately, his opinion among leaders is very rare. Consider this insight from author Jean Lipman-Blumen (The Allure of Toxic Leaders):

"[Leaders sometimes] suffer from narcissism and grandiosity that blind them to the shortcomings of their own character ... Toxic leaders feed their followers the illusion that they are omnipotent and omniscient."

Making matters worse, leaders often not only disregard feedback and contrary points of view, they take steps either knowingly or by default to isolate themselves from opposing opinions and alternative ideas. Author Jeffrey Sonnefield (Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters) makes an astute observation in the article:

"[Some leaders] put lawyers and public relations specialists between them and the world more than the World War II veteran CEOs of 20 years ago, and they are more reluctant to admit mistakes for fear of looking weak or mortal. That is a mistake in itself because the pattern in heroes throughout history has been to err, suffer and learn. It's the rise from the setbacks that separate leaders from the 'conveyor belt of fate.'"

If you ask me, this is one of President Bush's most critical weaknesses as a leader. It may well cost him more than his actual policy decisions do. A president who could effectively acknowledge other points of view even while choosing an alternate direction and one who was more willing to admit mistakes would likely serve as much better as a nation.

A book named Egonomics is set to publish this fall, and it will tackle issues of ego and leadership in business, among other topics. The authors are maintaining an intriguing blog in the meantime that is well worth a look.

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