Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Five Temptations of a CEO

Patrick Lencioni is a fantastic author. I don't know whether to classify him as relatively unknown or simply that he writes for a very specific target audience that not everyone is a part of. The main medium that he writes in are small business fables that are quick reads - this particular book is about 100 pages long. What I love is that they aren't so wordy and they smoothly walk you through from a character's point of view a business model and then at the end of the book he lays it all out in a very obvious manner. When he is playing author and not consultant, he does have a very good sense of humor. The first book I read by him was about power of vulnerability and authenticity. It was entitled, "Getting Naked." My parents could only guess what the true topic was for the short novel.

I don't want to ruin this book, "The Five Temptations of a CEO," so I will simply share the business model. It applies to all leaders in an organization, not just the one at the top. Companies are definitely like a tribe where it would be difficult if there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians. The major blessing or difference however is if there is a shared mission or purpose then having coworkers, employees or people that have enough passion about what they do will step up and lead without having to be asked. This is why companies look to hire leaders into all levels of their organization. More importantly is being the right kind of leader and knowing what that means.

I take no credit for the following as they come straight from the book but here is the model and the self-assessment that make up the five temptations of a CEO:

Temptation #1 - Choosing status over results

The most important principle that an executive must embrace is a desire to produce results. Most CEOs were results maniacs before reaching their ultimate jobs. Once they "arrive," though, many of them focus primarily on preserving their status. This occurs because their real purpose in life has always been personal gain. With nowhere to go but down, it almost makes sense that once they have achieved their ultimate status, they will do whatever they can to protect it.

This causes CEOs to make decisions that protect their ego or reputation or, worse yet, to avoid making decisions that might damage them. They reward people who contribute to their ego, instead of those who contribute to the results of the company. By focusing on results, they will ultimately achieve greater status and ego satisfaction but this requires a lot of work over a long period of time. It allows for too many risky episodes of status-loss along the way.

Advice: Make results the most important measure of personal success, or step down from the job. The future of the company you lead is too important for customers, employees, and stockholders to hold it hostage to your ego.

  • Do you personally consider it a professional failure when your organization fails to meet its objectives?
  • Do you often wonder, What's next? What will I do to top this in my career?
  • Would it bother you greatly if your company exceeded its objectives but you remained somewhat anonymous relative to your peers in the industry?


On a professional level, organizational success and personal-professional success are one and the same. Although it is healthy for any human being to separate his or her sense of self-esteem from success on the job, in the context of professional success these should not be divided. Too often, CEOs justify their own performance even when the organizations they lead are failing around them. CEOs must ultimately judge their personal-professional success by the results on the bottom line; only the CEO is ultimately responsible for the results of the company, and this must be his or her final measure.

Additionally, a pronounced concern for the "next step" in a person's career is a good sign of susceptibility to Temptation Number One because it is a possible indication that success is gauged in terms of career advancement rather than current performance. The most successful CEOs focus almost exclusively on their current jobs. Although human nature dictates that we hope for a just share of acknowledgement, it is a dangerous part of human nature to entertain. Those who eventually get that recognition are the CEOs who aren't distracted by the occasional slighting that an unscientific press is sure to give. Interestingly enough, they experience a low degree of satisfaction from such press. After all, they take larger personal satisfaction from achieving results.

Temptation #2 - Choosing popularity over accountability

Wanting to be well liked by peers is understandable, but dangerous, problem for CEOs. Being at the top of an organization is lonely. There are very few people in a company with whom CEOs spend considerable time, aside from their direct reports. Most CEOs become friends with their reports and commiserate about the constant needs and shortfalls of employees. They develop a sense of camaraderie around their overwhelming responsibilities. It is no surprise, the, that when it comes time for a CEO to tell these same people that they are not meeting expectations, they balk.

Empirical evidence of this phenomenon is that CEOs conduct performance reviews for their direct reports far less diligently then do managers at other levels. Why? It isn't because they are too busy or lazy, but because they don't want to deal with the prospect of upsetting one of their peers. Ironically, those same CEOs will not hesitate to ultimately fire a direct report when his or her performance problem becomes too costly, thereby severing the relationship completely. But they often fail to provide constructive or negative feedback along the way.

Advice: Work for the long-term respect of your direct reports, not for their affection. Don't view them as a support group, but as key employees who must deliver on their commitments if the company is to produce predictable results. And remember, your people aren't going to like you anyway if they ultimately fail.

  • Do you consider yourself to be a close friend of your direct reports?
  • Does it bother you to the point of distraction if they are unhappy with you?
  • Do you often find yourself reluctant to give negative feedback to your direct reports? Do you water down negative feedback to make it more palatable?
  • Do you often vent to them about issues in the organization? For example, do you refer to your staff as "we" and other employees as "they"?


It is wonderful for CEOs to care about direct reports as people, so long as they can separate the success of those relationships from their sense of self-esteem and personal happiness. This is difficult because most of us try to avoid major disagreements with close friends, and it is impossible not to be concerned about a deep rift with one of them. If those close friends are your direct reports, the accountability within the organization can be threatened. The slightest reluctance to hold someone accountable for their behaviors and results can cause an avalanche of negative reaction from others who perceive even the slightest hint of unfairness or favoritism.

Those CEOs who are able to make close friendships with direct reports and still avoid a sense of favoritism often find it easy to use those reports as their personal "venting boards." All executives need people they can vent to about challenges they face in the organization, but CEOs must resist the desire to use direct reports for this service. It can lead to politics among the executive team, and more importantly, it can undermine the team's objective understanding of their own actions by creating an atmosphere of self-victimizing groupthink. Often this manifests itself during executive staff meetings in comments such as "When will these people stop questioning us and start understanding what we are trying to do?"

Temptation #3 - Choosing certainty over clarity

CEOs are sometimes unwilling to hold their direct reports accountable because they don't think it's fair. This is because they haven't made it clear what those direct reports are accountable for doing. Why don't they make these things clear? Because they give in to yet another temptation: the need to make "correct" decisions, to achieve certainty.

Many CEOs, especially highly analytical ones, want to ensure that their decisions are correct, which is impossible in a world of imperfect information and uncertainty. Still, executives with a need for precision and correctness often postpone decisions and fail to make their people's deliverables clear. They provide vague and hesitant direction to their direct reports and hope that they figure out the right answers along the way. The chances that they will produce the results CEOs eventually decide they want are slim.

Advice: Make clarity more important than accuracy. Remember that your people will learn more if you take decisive action than if you always wait for more information. And if the decisions you make in the spirit of creating clarity turn out to be wrong when more information becomes available, change plans and explain why. It is your job to risk being wrong. The only real cost to you of being wrong is loss of pride. The cost of your company of not taking the risk of being wrong is paralysis.

  • Do you pride yourself on being intellectually precise?
  • Do you prefer to wait for more information rather than make a decision without all of the facts?
  • Do you enjoy debating details with your direct reports during meetings?


Intellectual precision alone is not the problem but when it manifests itself during staff meetings in terms of unnecessary debates over minutiae, it is a sign of real trouble. It is no surprise that many CEOs take a great deal of pride in their analytical and intellectual acumen. Unable to realize that their success as an executive usually has less to do with intellectual skills than it does with personal and behavioral discipline, they spend too much time debating the finer points of decision making.

Those debates are problematic for two reasons. First, they eat up valuable time that can be spent discussing larger issues, which often receive just a few minutes at the end of the staff meeting agenda. Second, and more important, they create a climate of excessive analysis and overintellectualization of tactical issues. If there is one person in an organization who cannot afford to be overly precise, it is the CEO.

Temptation #4 - Choosing harmony over productive conflict

CEOs fail to feel comfortable with the decisions they make because they don't benefit from the best sources of information that are available to them: their direct reports. Most people, including CEOs, believe that it is better for people to agree and get along than disagree and conflict with one another. That is how they were raised. However, harmony sometimes restricts "productive ideological conflict," the passionate interchange of opinions around an issue.

Without this kind of conflict, decisions are often suboptimal. The best decisions are made only after all knowledge and perspectives are out on the table. Not every person's perspective and opinion can be agreed with, but they can be considered. When all available knowledge is considered, the chances of optimal decisions are greater - not to mention the likelihood of confidence in those decisions, which is just as important.

Advice: Tolerate discord. Encourage your direct reports to air their ideological differences, and with passion. Tumultuous meetings are often signs of progress. Tame ones are often signs of leaving important issues off the table. Guard against personal attacks, but not to the point of stifling important interchanges of ideas.

  • Do you prefer your meetings to be pleasant and enjoyable?
  • Are your meetings often boring?
  • Do you get uncomfortable at meetings if your direct reports argue?
  • Do you often make peace or try to reconcile direct reports who are at odds with one another?


Lots of people complain about meetings taking up time that is needed for "real work." This is a sign that those meetings are not as difficult (or productive) as they should be. Executive staff meetings should be exhausting inasmuch as they are passionate, critical discussions. Pleasant or boring meetings are indications that there is not a proper level of overt, constructive, ideological conflict taking place.

Every meeting has conflict so don't be deceived. Some people sweep that conflict under the table and let employees deeper in the organization sort it out. This doesn't happen by accident. The tone of meetings is set by the leader that is conducting it and after a CEO squelches any potential passion for peace, this sends a message. Boredom and agreeable meetings set in and executives start lamenting the real work that they could be doing instead.

Temptation #5 - Choosing invulnerability over trust

Asking for productive conflict does not always achieve it because people may not feel like their input is important or valuable. CEOs are relatively powerful people. Being vulnerable with their peers and reports is not a comfortable prospect. They mistakenly believe that they lose credibility if their people feel too comfortable challenging their ideas.

People are unwilling to enter the fray of productive conflict if it doesn't feel safe. As a result, those reports position themselves around the inferred opinion of the CEO and conflict with one another only when it is politically expedient. Instead of creating a culture of creativity, trust and open dialogue for sharing important information, it is an atmosphere of "yes men."

Advice: Actively encourage your people to challenge your ideas. Trust them with your reputation and your ego. As a CEO, this is the greatest level of trust that you can give. They will return it with respect and honesty, and with a desire to be vulnerable among their peers.

  • Do you have a hard time admitting when you're wrong?
  • Do you fear that your direct reports want your job?
  • Do you try to keep your greatest weaknesses secret from your direct reports?


No one loves to admit being wrong, but some people hate it. Great CEOs don't lose face in the slightest when they are wrong, because they know who they are, they know why they are the CEO, and they realize that the organization's results, not the appearance of being smart, are their ultimate measure of success. They know that the best way to get results is to put their weaknesses on the table and invite people to help them minimize those weaknesses. CEOs who understand this concept intellectually but cannot behavioralize it sometimes make the mistake of finding symbolic moments to admit mistakes and weaknesses. This only serves to reinforce the notion that the CEO is unwilling to put real weaknesses on the table. Overcoming this temptation requires a degree of fear and pain that many CEOs are unwilling to tolerate.


Instilling trust gives executives the confidence to have productive conflict. Fostering conflict gives executives confidence to create clarity. Clarity gives executives the confidence to hold people accountable. Accountability gives executives confidence in expected results. And results are a CEO's ultimate measure of long-term success.

CEOs who follow this model still fail but mostly if they are thwarted by competitive and market pressures that are largely out of their control. Leadership and management are not the same thing. We can manage people and manage problems. Leaders need to expect to make mistakes and be able to change at a moment's notice. They need to rely on others and accept and acknowledge that they aren't the one with all the answers in the room. They have to take risks. Leaders need to act and can't settle for the same but require constant improvement. Good managers produce quantity but good leaders produce quality.

Great leaders find a way to produce both.

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