Again, I’m not going to name any recent massive flameouts, but in your own mind run down the list of a few most spectacular overachievers on your personal Hall of Imploders list.  I predict with confidence that each one self-destructed in their own way, but I also bet one reaction of yours was common across all their cases:  “What were they thinking?

This is the question strategy+business takes on in its “How powerful people slip:”

The descent from being a darling of Wall Street to being reviled by shareholders can be swift and unforgiving. Stories abound of overreach and missteps by top leaders, often with grievous legal or financial consequences. When a company crashes because of a scandal or ethical error, onlookers naturally wonder: “How could the leaders let themselves get into a situation like that? They had all the advantages that go with their position, and so much to lose. Shouldn’t they know better?” But in fact, it’s their brain’s reaction to being well-regarded and powerful that often takes executives and other people in authority over the cliff.

Stories of senior leaders making poor decisions are rampant at every scale: from minor transgressions that create quiet frustrations inside HR departments, to global scandals that thrust leaders into the public eye. Each case is different, but they all have one common element: In the brain, a set of responses to temptation gradually shifts the attention of powerful people away from the disciplined behaviors associated with enlightened management. If you want to be the kind of leader who resists these missteps, you have to develop a clearer understanding of the dynamics of power — and their effect on your own thinking and that of others around you.

The problem shows its truly complex essence because some of the very strengths most critical in a leader can turn destructive when unchecked.

Such as?

  • Focusing on a vision and goals, combined with a strong sense of optimism, can distract you from potential unintended consequences or “mere”  operational issues.  You may also (subconsciously, one hopes, but it’s no less dangerous for that) tend to ignore people with less rosy views or discount the validity of their reservations.
  • The unavoidable (and, let’s face it, mostly welcome) perks that come with senior leadership can be isolating: All arrangements made for you “magically;” restaurants, flights, and hotels all of high caliber (and “free”); larger/quieter offices; efficient, cultivated, polished, and deferential assistants.
  • The similarly unavoidable and mostly desirable reality that the higher you rise in an organization, the more your perspective shifts to the macro and the general and away from the day to day of “the coalface” and such granular and highly personalized criteria such as the quality of individual client experiences.

Make no mistake: These are all natural byproducts of high status within an organization.  That’s why it can be a devilish problem, and if you become blind to it people will pick up on it with uncanny alacrity.

Does this sound familiar?:

It can feel productive and satisfying to narrow your focus to goals, which are easier to manage than people; however, your peers and subordinates will feel intimately this lack of meaningful inclusion and perspective taking. People are extremely sensitive to certain social needs and whether they are being met. The SCARF model, developed by David Rock at the NeuroLeadership Institute, outlines five such social needs: status (the need for ranking in a hierarchy), certainty (the need for control over one’s environment), autonomy (the need for agency and independence), relatedness (the need for belonging and inclusion), and fairness (the need for equity and justice). Leaders who fail to take others’ perspectives into account risk threatening their sense of relatedness, fairness, and status. People may feel that they don’t have a voice, that their opinions don’t matter.

The more senior you are, it’s safe the say, the more highly you will rank on:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy, and
  • Relatedness

and the lower you will score on Fairness.

So be prepared to consciously downplay Status, Certainty, Autonomy, and Relatedness and devote much more time to Fairness.  Think “inclusive,” “questioning,” “curious,” and always welcome (Scout’s honor) new developments that might change your mind.

Some of the world’s leading think tanks and academic research institutes and labs have embraced a maxim that encapsulates this attitude and that you would do well to emulate:  “Strong opinions, weakly held.”

Fortunately, we need not keep this at an abstract level.

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