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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Leadership Trap

Why do talented leaders, often at the peak of their career, lose their moral bearings and their way? Why do leaders known for integrityengage in unethical activities? Why do they risk great careers and unblemished reputations for such ephemeral gains? Do they think they won’t get caught? Do they believe their elevated status puts them above the law? Is this the first time they did something inappropriate, or have they been on the slippery slope for years? What goes wrong, and how can we learn from it?

We often characterize leaders who fall as bad people, even calling them evil. This only clouds our understanding of why good leaders lose their way. They are not necessarily bad people; rather, they often yield to seductions in their paths. Few people go into leadership roles to cheat or do evil, yet we all have the capacity for actions we deeply regret unless we stay grounded.

Self-Reflection Path to LD

Before anyone takes on a leadership role, they should ask themselves, Why do I want to lead? and What’s the purpose of my leadership? If your honest answers are powerprestige, and money, you are at risk of relying on external gratification for fulfillment. You need to serve something greater than yourself.

Leaders whose goal is the quest for power over others, unlimited wealth, or the fame that comes withsuccess tend to look to others to gain satisfaction, and often appear self-centered and egotistical. They start to believe their own press. As leaders, they believe the institution can’t succeed without them.

Few leaders start out seeking only money, power, and prestige. Along the way, the rewards—bonus checks, press, perks, and stock appreciation—fuel increasing desires for more. This creates a deep desire to keep it going, often driven by desires to overcome narcissistic wounds from childhood. Many times, this desire is so strong that leaders breach the ethical standards that previously governed their conduct, which can be bizarre and even illegal. As Novartis chairman Daniel Vasella said: “For many of us the idea of being a successful manager—leading the company from peak to peak, delivering the goods quarter to quarter—is an intoxicating one. It is a pattern of celebration leading to belief, leading to distortion. When you achieve good results, you are typically celebrated, and you being to believe that the figure at the center of all that champagne-toasting is yourself.”

When leaders focus on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction, they lose their grounding. They reject honest critics who speak truth to power. Instead they surround themselves withsycophants who tell them what they want to hear. They can’t engage in honest dialogue; others learn not to confront them with reality.

Many leaders get to the top by imposing their will on others, even destroying people standing in their way. When they reach the top, they may be paranoid that others are trying to knock them off their pedestal. Sometimes they develop an impostor complex, caused by deep insecurities that they are never enough.

To prove they aren’t imposters, they drive so hard for perfection that they can’t acknowledge their failures. When confronted by them, they convince themselves and others that these problems are neither their fault nor their responsibility. Or they look for scapegoats to blame. Using their power, charisma, and communications skills, they force people to accept these distortions, causing entire organizations to lose touch with reality. At this stage, leaders are vulnerable to making big mistakes, such as violating the law. Their distortions convince them they are doing nothing wrong, or they rationalize that their deviations are acceptable to achieve a greater good.

It’s lonely at the top, because leaders know they are ultimately responsible for the lives and fortunes of people. If they fail, many get deeply hurt. They often deny the burdens of loneliness, becoming incapable of facing reality. They shut down their inner voice, because it is too painful to confront or acknowledge; it may, however, appear in their dreams as they try to resolve conflicts rustling around inside their heads.

Meanwhile, their work lives and personal lives get out of balance. They lose touch with those closest to them—their spouses, children, and friends—or co-opt them with their points of view. Eventually, they lose their capacity to think logically about important issues.

Values-Centered Leadership

Leading is high-stress work. There is no way to avoid the constant challenges. Leaders who move up have greater freedom to control their destinies, but also experience increased pressure and seduction. Leaders can avoid these pitfalls by devoting themselves to personal development that cultivates their inner compass, or True North.

This requires reframing their leadership from being heroes to being servants of the people they lead. This requires introspection because many people get into leadership roles in response to their ego needs. It enables them to transition from seeking external gratification to finding internal satisfaction by making meaningful contributions through their leadership.

Maintaining their equilibrium amid this stress requires discipline. Some people practice meditation or yoga to relieve stress; others find solace in prayer or walks; still others find relief through laughter, music, television, sports, and reading. Their choices don’t matter, as long as they relieve stress andthink more clearly about work and personal issues.

Leaders need to seek out people who influence them in profound ways and stay connected to them. Often their spouse or partner knows them best. They aren’t impressed by titles, prestige, or wealth accumulation; instead, they worry that these outward symbols may be causing the loss of authenticity.

Leaders also need mentors to advise them when facing difficult decisions—mentors who are honest and straight with them, defining reality and developing action plans. In addition, intimate support groups with whom leaders can share their life experiences, hopes, fears and challenges, are invaluable. Members aren’t impressed by external success, but care enough about us as people and as leaders to confront us when we’re dishonest with ourselves.

Reprinted with permission Leadership Excellence Magazine October 2011