Corner Office-Dr. Mark on Egomaniacs
(Fill in the blank with your own name if you have been magically granted a new level of self-awareness. Or fill in your boss’s name before you secretly slip this article into his or her mailbox because you are too afraid to confront him or her face to face.)
As I’ve worked with hundreds of underperforming and failing companies over the years, a common denominator that seems to cause the greatest destruction in business is the leader with a larger-than-life ego.
I’m talking about the leaders like Montgomery Burns, Homer Simpson’s boss on The Simpsons, who once said, “I’ll keep it short and sweet: Family, religion, friendship—these are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.” Mr. Burns is similar to stereotypical take-charge, super-competitive personalities such as Lee Iacocca, Al Dunlap, and Jack Welch.
During the past century, the success of a CEO was primarily measured by his or her ability to generate wealth for the company’s investors. Therefore, someone with a ruthless, no-holds-barred personality was required, sought after, admired, and paid handsomely.
But the world is fundamentally changing. As we learned from the pre–Sarbanes Oxley years and most recently from the collapse of many financial institutions, Wall Street firms, and automakers, we can no longer afford to measure the success of a leader by last quarter’s numbers and yesterday’s stock price. We have to redefine success by valuing leadership characteristics such as humility, communication, transparency, personal values, and servant leadership in order to create businesses that are economically and socially sustainable for the long term.
Businesses cannot afford to be led by executives who are willing to put thousands of employees and millions of dollars at stake to fulfill the demands of their egos. We can no longer afford to hang on to outdated and bad ideas for fear of offending or making the person in the corner office angry. And we can no longer afford to take good companies through bankruptcy or liquidation just because the CEO wouldn’t listen when anyone alerted him or her to oncoming trouble.
It’s time for all business leaders to take a serious look at what makes them tick. If you look in your heart’s mirror and find that any of the following descriptions fit you, then you have a problem that will more than likely place your company and its employees, vendors, creditors, investors, and leaseholders in peril.
Moreover, if any of the following describes you, then you also are likely to lose everything you worked hard to build over the years, including your money and your reputation. So as you read this, be honest with yourself, and then realize that you can change your ways—and should start doing so immediately.
You Are a Control Freak
There’s a cynical theory in business called the Peter Principle, which states that in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his or her own level of incompetence. I have coined a similar rule called the Ego Principle, which states that an ego-driven, controlling leader also eventually reaches his or her level of incompetence. That point occurs when the business successfully grows beyond what one person can humanly manage on his or her own—yet that person is unable to give authority or responsibility to others.
This type of leader has to be in control of everything and make all decisions, no matter how big or small. Although you may think you are ensuring your company’s success, the truth is that you have become the brakes on the wheels of progress. You are doing more harm than good in the long run.
In addition to being controlling, you are very manipulative in order to always get your own way. You manipulate everything in your business around your own pride and ego, and go to great lengths to compartmentalize communications. You view knowledge as power, so you parse out small pieces of information to ensure that no one else can see the big picture, or that no one person has too much knowledge, which could take control away from you. You twist and turn information and rearrange facts until they fit your own reality. In the end, you become burned out, your employees are frustrated, and your business finds itself at the beginning of the corporate death spiral.
You Are the Smartest Person You Have Ever Met
Leaders get to the corner office because they believe in their abilities to lead and achieve the desired results for their companies. However, there’s a big distinction between confidence and cockiness. While good leaders need to have conviction in their beliefs, I have observed leaders who are such egomaniacs that nobody—not one of their officers, professional advisors, mentors, or corporate directors—can tell them that they are wrong about anything without being thrown under the bus.
Over time, these demented leaders whittle down their group of advisors and officers to those who have been handpicked to be their rubber stamps, or are retained because they are too weak to form their own opinions. Note this exchange between Mr. Burns and his assistant, Smithers:
Burns: Smithers, I’ve been thinking. Is it wrong to cheat to win a million-dollar bet?
Smithers: Yes, sir.
Burns: Let me rephrase that. Is it wrong if I cheat to win a million-dollar bet?
Smithers: No, sir. Who would you like killed?
Leaders who foster this kind of environment are doomed to fail because they are not making decisions based on the realities that exist, but on the reality they want to see.
You Have Never Made a Mistake
When things go wrong, it’s always somebody else’s fault: your employees’, your advisers’, your directors’, even your spouse’s. You cannot take responsibility for anything that goes awry, and your way is the only way. I call this being Mr. or Ms. Teflon, because nothing sticks to you.
A healthy company, however, has a corporate culture of encouraging and listening to all ideas and solutions. A while back, I came across an article highlighting an organizational-theory study from the 1980s in which the researchers studied NASA’s findings on the human factors involved in airline accidents.
NASA researchers put existing cockpit crews (pilot, copilot, and navigator) in flight simulators and tested how they responded during the 30 to 45 seconds after the first sign of a potential accident. The stereotypical take-charge, ego-driven pilots who acted immediately on their own gut instincts made the wrong decisions far more often than the more open, inclusive pilots who asked their crews for input before making a decision.
Going deeper, the organizational researchers discovered that the pilots’ style of interacting with their crews also determined whether crew members would offer essential information during a crisis. The pilots who made more right choices encouraged open communication with their copilots and navigators.
You Enjoy Intimidating Others
I’ve observed ego-driven leaders, supposedly adults, who threw pencils, yelled and screamed, walked out of the room in a huff, and shouted foul and irrational things that a normal, mature human being would never say—in short, acted like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.
If that sounds familiar—well, Dr. Mark has a news flash for you! These antics are your way of masking your own insecurities and incompetencies. My experience is that leaders with these characteristics are simply scared to death on the inside, and the obnoxious behavior is a faÃ§ade, an attempt at self-protection. You don’t like your own self-image, so the external image of being a successful, powerful person becomes all consuming—and eventually drives your business into the ground.
If the egomaniac shoe fits and you can admit that some of these descriptions sound familiar, you’ve taken the first step toward recognizing that you have a problem. Don’t waste any time getting some professional help before it’s too late for yourself, the business you lead, and all the people affected by your business.
Best of luck to you,