Are you suffering from CEO disease?

Is your business flourishing? Does it feel like you have the Midas touch? Are your decisions and direction moving the company forward each week, month and quarter? Success is intoxicating and invigorating…and can often increase our blind spots and potentially our egos. 

The moment we allow hubris to creep into our leadership is often the moment our descent begins. Rarely is success ours alone. Our team, the market, timing and  a host of other outside forces all influence how we arrived at this moment . When we place too much credit on our own abilities and over-inflate the importance of our role, we become a potential liability to our business. I first learned of this phenomenon (what many refer to as ‘CEO disease’) when I read “How the Mighty Fall”, by Jim Collins several years ago. 

CEO disease was first described by leadership gurus Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee in 2002. What is interesting is that the leader/CEO is not always the only contributing party. Often as he or she climbs higher and higher in the ranks, people are less inclined to be open, honest and share critical feedback. There can be others involved in the business looking to gain favor of the leader and they may withhold offering a differing opinion because they think it will work against their own ambitions to climb the corporate ladder. 

As leaders, we must invite and lean into dissenting voices and opinions. How should we do this? Lead by example. Ask the hard questions and poke holes in our ideas and the ideas of others on our team. You may find (as I did) that your team finds it difficult to believe that you really want open and honest conversations or to have your ideas challenged. I realized that I had to remind my teams regularly that I wanted and truly welcomed their thoughts and perspectives. For the greater good of any organization, we need to look at things from multiple perspectives. If your people struggle to speak up or speak out (perhaps because they are scarred from previous experiences), a good strategy is to enlist help from one or more members of your team. In advance of a meeting, ask them to openly offer a dissenting opinion so the team sees you are willing and open to being challenged. When you are challenged, make sure you respond openly and seek further inquiry. Be sure to thank them for their contribution. 

Rarely do we jump into CEO disease all at once. It is more insidious than that, one missed (or botched) conversation at a time until we are fully engulfed and don’t even realize it-much like a frog in a pot of boiling water who doesn’t notice the increasing temperature. Encouraging open and honest feedback and rigorous debates throughout your leadership journey is a great way to prevent this destructive behavior from taking root. Be intentional as a team about looking at issues and opportunities through the lens of an outsider. If you were all brand new to this organization, what would your thoughts be regarding your current path or decision? Put on your Board of Directors hats and ask the hard questions. To avoid slipping into habits and patterns that erode our ability to lead well, it’s imperative that we are intentional in our approach. 

Are you doing enough to ensure the people who report to you are open and honest and willing to debate rigorously for the greater good? 


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