Posted on 27 August 2010
My Vistage chair, John Dame, handed me a great article titled The Power Trip. It asserts that CEOs who are rude, unethical and in some cases criminal, have not always behaved in such a manner. In fact, they could not have been in order to get to the top. Something happened to them called “The Paradox of Power”. In summary, it said, “the very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power.”
On one hand, this theory gives me a little bit of comfort. Perhaps the VPs and CEOs that I saw act worse than spoiled children haven’t always been that way. Maybe they were once well behaved, compassionate, ethical, and open minded. Maybe this explains why I had a CEO chastise me for hiring the spouse of a current employee, even though they where the most qualified and in a separate chain, when they, themselves, had their own child working for them at the corporate office.
On the other hand, this article gives me cause for concern. Can a transformational leader become un-transformed? Can they lose their transformational super powers? The goal with becoming transformed by something, is that you go through an internalized change so powerful it becomes a second nature or a part of you. Is that not the case with transformational leadership, too?
The article recommended that in order to combat this, there be a series of accountability gate keepers’ at all key points. In other words, let the leader know that the risk of getting caught is high should they decide to make an inappropriate comment or commit an `illegal act. But is that really what keeps a transformational leader in check? I’ve always been told that character is how you act when nobody is looking, not how you act because you know you might get caught.
Rules are important, as are gate keepers, and all forms of independent auditors. People are flawed, self-serving creatures. I understand that. In the military academies, we operated under the honor code. It states that we will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do. Violations could lead to expulsion. It was a key ingredient to solidifying the importance of ethical behavior in an officer-to-be.
But am I really transformed if I act accordingly because I know I might get caught? Can I inspire transformative behavior in others or am I merely mentoring them to operate on a higher level of rule abiding? As leaders, it’s time to really examine at our hearts and understand where our weaknesses are. What would we really do if no one was looking and we knew we could get away with it? Then we need to surround ourselves with great mentors and books that make us want to operate on the straight and narrow not to keep ourselves out of trouble but because it’s the right thing to do.
Just as a personal or spiritual relationship relies on our spending time weeding out the tempting thoughts, people, and circumstances, so does your professional one. People can fall in and out of love and leaders can fall in and out of transformative behavior. We all make mistakes, some of them very costly. But a real leader will work relentlessly to ensure they steer clear of the temptations, entitlement mentality, and selfishness that have brought so many other leaders down before them.