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Return to the right side of leadership

Jul 10, 2019

Working hard to get to your leadership position has its perks, and sometimes those perks can be to your detriment. Patrick Gallen explains how to keep your focus on lifting those around you and not yourself.

I am a great fan of the work of Rasmus Hougard and Jacqueline Carter in The Mind of a Leader.  One of the areas that they reference in follow-up articles is ego and how it is the enemy of good leadership.  This is worth reflecting on in more detail, particularly in the context of how close today’s leaders are to their people.

If you're like me, you are not too old to remember the days of ‘Executive Only’ dining rooms and ‘Executive Lifts’ in buildings. You have to ask yourself how those leaders effectively engaged with their people or knew what was happening within the organisation. Having visibility of your people is critical to effective leadership.  It’s safe to say that the benefits of their position may have, in fact, been undermining their leadership effectiveness.

Avoiding the board bubble

What can you do about this as a leader? When you get promoted through the ranks of your organisation, your ego may get promoted, as well! The first thing is to recognise is that your inflated ego is a risk; not only for you but also for the senior leadership team. Being caught within an insulated ‘board bubble’ is very dangerous. You risk losing touch with your colleagues and clients, not to mention the culture of the organisation, much like the executives in their own personal lifts. Behaviour-breeds-behaviour and tone-from-the-top are critical in effectively leading any organisation.

Hubris syndrome

It is also important to recognise that the traits that gave you success so far may not get you to the next level. With leadership comes power and influence and with that, your team are likely to want to please you, by allowing you to take the lead.  All of these massage the ego.  Moreover, when the ego is massaged, it grows! For leaders who have been in power for a long time, there is the potential risk of ‘hubris syndrome’, a phrase coined by Dr. David Owen, a former British Foreign Secretary and a neurologist; and Jonathan Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University.

After researching the medical history of UK prime ministers and US presidents, they identified symptoms and traits of hubris – a syndrome that befalls many who have substantial power over a length of time. A sample of the 14 symptoms identified by Owen and Davidson included using power for self-glorification, loss of contact with reality, excessive self-confidence, and contempt for advice or criticism from others.

An inflated ego or sense of power may not itself undermine your leadership ability. In fact, some see it as a natural by-product of a successful leader. There is, however, a darker side to many leaders manifested in character traits can that can ultimately lead to impulsive and destructive behaviour.

Leadership is about your people

As a leader, you must recognise and respect that leadership is about your people, not your rewards and sense of entitlement that may come with your position. Maybe move out of your private office and eat lunch with your staff – it need not be lonely at the top. It might be better to encourage, develop and work with people who won’t feed your ego.  Hire bright people with the confidence to speak up and challenge you and the status quo.

Patrick Gallen is Partner, People and Change Consulting, in Grant Thornton Northern Ireland.