Most of the CEOs I’ve met and worked with had years to prepare for their jobs. As they entered middle management, most of them learned that being a good leader is more important than being a good do-er. Many have stories to tell about stumbling along the way, about micromanaging people, about destroying a team’s morale with unreasonable demands, about losing a great team member because enough time and attention weren’t given to the relationship.
Most survived these types of difficult experiences and, more important, learned from them. They learned to let go of control and instead support people in doing their jobs. They learned to watch their teams for signs of burnout and rebellion. They learned to help people work smarter, not harder. They learned to read people well. They got very good at recognizing who needs appreciation, who needs support, who’s motivated by achievement, and who needs very collegial relationships — even with the boss. They learned tricks for building stronger teams, for dealing with conflict, and for negotiating.
You would think that all of this would have prepared them well to step into a CEO role, right? Maybe not. Consider “James,” a CEO I met some years back.
James did all of the things I mentioned above and more. In fact, as an inside candidate, he’d had the benefit of learning his company’s culture before stepping into the CEO role. He also had strong relationships with many people at all levels and in all geographies — even board members.
While he was still in his executive team role, James was seen as a good, solid leader. He inspired people, wasn’t ruffled easily, and managed to get results without steamrolling anyone. True, he was still a bit of a micromanager, especially when he perceived threats to the company’s success. He also had a bit of a blind spot when it came to the trappings of the role. He loved being with his CEO on the private jet, enjoyed having a full-time chief of staff, and generally liked the lifestyle. But all in all, it seemed he’d be a good CEO; no doubt that’s why he was ultimately selected for the position.
I visited James a year or so into his tenure as CEO and witnessed an interaction between him and two of his employees that’s burned into my memory. It went like this. We were sitting in a glass-fronted conference room in an open floor plan. I could see out; James was facing me. As we talked, I noticed two managers approaching, clearly in high spirits. They knocked politely and asked if they could share some great news about their project, which was fine with us. They were clearly thrilled and happy with their success — smiling, laughing, proud of the outcomes. James joined in and they had what looked to me like a great conversation.
The managers left. Grinning, James turned to me and said, “Did you see that?” “Sure,” I said, “that was great! They did such a good job, you must be proud.” “No,” he said, “did you see how they are with me?”
I was confused. And concerned. The way he said it just didn’t feel right. He went on to tell me that ever since he ascended (his word) to the CEO slot, women seemed to enjoy his company more (the two managers happened to be female). Now I was shocked. What on earth did he mean?
We talked. And we talked some more. It turns out that James had completely lost sight of what his role meant to people. He was taking everything — all the adulation, all the praise, all the desire for his recognition — personally. He actually thought that the way people were treating him was 100% due to his great leadership and shiny personality. It didn’t occur to him that it might be his role and the power that goes with it that caused people to behave in certain ways.
Long story short, over some months, James and I worked through some of the issues he was facing (luckily we’d been friendly for a while and could talk honestly). What we discovered was that despite all he’d learned along the way, the power of the role had blinded him to a great many things, particularly about himself and his relationships at work. In essence, two key emotional intelligence competencies, self-awareness and empathy, had disappeared from his tool kit.
Since then, I’ve made it a point to attend carefully to how CEOs and other top executives deal with power — or not. And, it seems to me, what happened to James is not unique. It happens a lot!
Why? There are several reasons. First, power really does corrupt us, including our judgment. Second, people treat us differently if we are powerful. Sometimes, as with James, they love us more. Sometimes they hate us more. Either way, it’s easy to get caught up in and believe the hype.
Finally, a lot of people get to the top without doing a lot of personal introspection or growth. While they seem to have learned emotional intelligence along the way, it’s often fairly superficial. For example, they may have learned how to manage relationships, but they never truly learned to empathize or read people fully or accurately. They may be able to decipher motives and needs, but only enough to get things done. When it comes to self-management, a lot of leaders learn to manage the outward expression of emotion but don’t have a clue about how to deal with deep-seated emotions such as insecurity or how they feel about power and authority. As for self-awareness, that’s where I see the biggest gap. This is partly because personal reflection has never been something we do in business; it just hasn’t been deemed necessary. So in most organizations we are encouraged to examine ourselves to find weaknesses and fix them. This is fine, but it’s not the kind of self-awareness you need if you are going to be dealing with situations where you, and everyone else, can be blinded by the power of your role.
What can prospective CEOs do to be better prepared to deal with our complicated and complex human responses to power in the workplace? Here’s what I’ve learned:
True professional growth without personal growth is impossible. In order to truly learn to be a better leader, and to be better able to deal with power dynamics, you’ve got to figure yourself out. To start, ask yourself a few questions:
- How do you feel about power? How do you react to people — like your boss — who have power over you or who have authority and can make decisions that affect your life? Where do you think your reactions to power and authority originated? (Yes, you probably will need to think about relationships with people such as your father, mother, and others who were instrumental in your childhood.)
- How do you feel about the trappings of power, things like money, cars, homes, vacations? Do you measure yourself with these yardsticks? How do you feel when you “measure up”? How do you treat people who don’t measure up? How do you feel when you think you are falling short? What do you do with those feelings? For example, do you turn inward and blame yourself? Or do you lash out?
- What is more important to you than power? Is it family, health, well-being, happiness at work and in life, ethics? Your answers will give you a clear indication of what you truly value in life. Being aware of this and letting your values guide your choices will go a long way toward helping you navigate your behaviors and thoughts at work.
Over the past twenty years, most leaders have come to accept that emotional intelligence is key to their success. But we’ve still got a long way to go before we realize that developing EQ is a life long quest, not an exercise. And for senior leaders and CEOs, who hold people’s careers and livelihoods in their hands, it’s a responsibility.
This article was previously published on HBR.