RESEARCH & IDEAS
Why Leaders Lose Their Way
Published: June 6, 2011 Author: Bill George Dominique Strauss-Kahn is just the latest in a string of high-profile leaders making the perp walk. What went wrong, and how can we learn from it? Professor Bill George says these are not bad people; rather, they've lost their moral bearings. To stay grounded executives must prepare themselves to confront enormous complexities and pressures. Key concepts include: • Leaders who move up have greater freedom to control their destinies, but also experience increased pressure and seduction. • Leaders can avoid these pitfalls by devoting themselves to personal development that cultivates their inner compass, or True North. This requires reframing their leadership from being heroes to being servants of the people they lead. believe their elevated status puts them above the law? • Was this the first time they did something inappropriate, or have they been on the slippery slope for years? In these ongoing revelations, the media, politicians, and the general public frequently characterize these leaders as bad people, even calling them evil. Simplistic notions of good and bad only cloud our understanding of why good leaders lose their way, and how this could happen to any of us. Leaders who lose their way are not bad people; rather, they lose their moral bearings, often yielding to seductions in their paths. Very few people go into leadership roles to cheat or do evil, yet we all have the capacity for actions we deeply regret unless we stay grounded. standards that previously governed their conduct, which can be bizarre and even illegal.
Very few people go into leadership to cheat or do evil.
As Novartis chairman Daniel Vasella (HBS PMD 57) told Fortune magazine, "for many of us the idea of being a successful manager—leading the company from peak to peak, delivering the goods quarter by quarter—is an intoxicating one. It is a pattern of celebration leading to belief, leading to distortion. When you achieve good results… you are typically celebrated, and you begin to believe that the figure at the center of all that champagne-toasting is yourself." When leaders focus on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction, they lose their grounding. Often they reject the honest critic who speaks truth to power. Instead, they surround themselves with sycophants who tell them what they want to hear. Over time, they are unable to engage in honest dialogue; others learn not to confront them with reality.
In recent months several high-level leaders have mysteriously lost their way. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading French politician, was arraigned on charges of sexual assault. Before that David Sokol, rumored to be Warren Buffett's successor, was forced to resign for trading in Lubrizol stock prior to recommending that Berkshire Hathaway purchase the company. Examples abound of other recent failures: • Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd resigned for submitting false expense reports concerning his relationship with a contractor. • US Senator John Ensign (R-NV) resigned after covering up an extramarital affair with monetary payoffs. • Lee B. Farkas, former chairman of giant mortgage lender Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, in April was found guilty for his role in one of the largest bank fraud schemes in American history. These talented leaders were highly successful in their respective fields and at the peak of their careers. This makes their behavior especially perplexing, raising questions about what caused them to lose their way: • Why do leaders known for integrity and leadership engage in unethical activities? • Why do they risk great careers and unblemished reputations for such ephemeral gains? • Do they think they won't get caught or
Self-reflection: a path to leadership development
Before anyone takes on a leadership role, they should ask themselves, "Why do I want to lead?" and "What's the...
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