Taboos of Leadership - Beautiful Beast

Future leaders face a plethora of challenges and obstacles, tangible and intangible, on their climb to the top. And once there, the work is just beginning. It takes guts, a thick skin, belief in oneself, and maybe even a touch of madness to be a great leader.

Charlie Bass, 20.12.2018

If you do not view yourself as special, no one else will either

“A certain amount of self-love and self-belief is necessary to prosper in corporate life,” says Dr Manfred Kets de Vries, Clinical Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at INSEAD’s Global Leadership Center and one of the world’s foremost leadership thinkers. This ‘constructive narcissism’ contributes to assertiveness, self-confidence, and creativity – all highly desirable qualities in a business leader. A degree of narcissism – an egotistical streak – gives focus and direction. “People who achieve things have to be somewhat narcissistic, or they would not be motivated to excellence,” says Kets de Vries.

Leaders plagued by doubts are unlikely to find followers. If leaders believe in their own abilities, the more likely it is others will follow them. Leadership requires faith in the leader by those under their command.

“The first task of any leader is to act as a merchant of hope,” says Kets de Vries. Leaders set an example and demonstrate a clear vision of where they want the organization to go. Without some level of self-aggrandizing belief in the importance of their own ideas this would be a virtually impossible task.

“A completely selfless individual would find it extremely difficult to cope with the rigors of leadership,” says Dr Anthony F. Smith, co-founder and managing director of the Leadership Research Institute and author of The Taboos of Leadership. It is virtually impossible to face up to the demands of leadership without internal drive that confirms that you are the best.

The first task of any leader is to act as a merchant of hope.”

For an executive or manager to be effective, however, they must not be excessively narcissistic. “There are of course leaders who are driven by their own sense of superiority, those who think that the people they encounter along the way are simply a means to an end,” says Dr Pekka Mattila, Professor of Practice at Aalto University School of Economics, Group Managing Director at Aalto University Executive Education and a specialist in strategic marketing and change management.

“These overly narcissistic leaders usually make it to the top positions in organizational cultures where there are no checks and balances in place, where the focus is on outcomes and not ethics, integrity or procedures.”

The motivating power of self-interest

Every leader, even those uninterested in money or power, is motivated by some self-interested goal. These goals can be positive, even heroic, based on a higher order or purpose driving them forward. They are commonly seen in entrepreneurial executives or leaders in public administration where the journey to the top is long and the rewards, at least the financial rewards, pale in significance to their corporate counterparts.

Passion and purpose energize these people, giving them the ability to motivate others, convincing them they are serving the greater good, and thus ensuring they all row in the same direction. “Selflessness is a form of currency,” says Smith. “In situations where there are not billions of dollars at stake, there has to be some other currency that attracts the people you want to work for you and keeps them committed to the cause.”

The belief in a cause engenders magnetism and charisma and provides the irresistible spark that lures others to you and makes them fellow believers. While it may be lonely at the top and a certain distance may be necessary to maintain the requisite authority, leadership is still unquestionably a team sport.

Selflessness is a form of currency.”

“Truly successful leaders are always supported by a successful executive team,” Kets de Vries says. And the moment you reach the top, even if you do not yourself project charisma, people will see it in you. It comes with the projection of leadership. Charisma is not to be confused with talent, however. When surrounded by sycophants the leader can lose sight of what is best for the organization.

Can you face yourself in the mirror?

More and more of today’s leaders are willing to engage in self-reflection, often in the form of executive coaching. This preventive medicine helps to maintain the checks and balances necessary to a healthy and productive leadership style. It keeps leaders in touch with their emotional intelligence.

Tools such as 360-degree feedback have become the weapons of choice in the quest to develop better, healthier leaders. These tools give them the opportunity to hear what those around them really think and feel about their leadership style and personality. It can be a major wake-up call, forcing a leader to accept shortcomings and reflect on how to improve their management style.

However, the success of this method relies on the leader’s desire to develop, willingness to accept and process feedback, and ability to act on it. It requires them to understand that the people providing it are individuals whose thought processes, perspectives and methods of handling information differ from their own. The best leaders acknowledge and appreciate these differences and accept that direct feedback from those around them constitutes a valuable and necessary input to the self-improvement process.

“The willingness and ability to adapt is actually the sign of a healthy leader,” says Kets de Vries. “Reflect on your actions and act on the information. This will have huge benefits for the organization – the best leaders are reflective practitioners,” he continues. For 360-degree feedback to be truly successful, honesty is the best policy: self-awareness and candor from recipients, honesty from respondents, and an open organization culture.

We are all a little bit crazy."

He also says that those who accept the madness in themselves may be the healthiest leaders of all.  “We are all a little bit crazy.  The best leaders are highly motivated to spend time on self-reflection. Their lives are in balance, they can play, they are creative and inventive, and they have the capacity to be nonconformist,” says Kets de Vries.

While feedback from peers is a powerful motivator, it is often events in their personal lives that are the real drivers of change. Significant events as divorce, a health scare, or negative comments from partners and children are highly likely to be a springboard to self-improvement and better leadership.

From self-belief to self-doubt

The flipside of self-reflection is when leaders have the facts in front of them and find that they do have shortcomings, are not invincible, and may even be perceived as inadequate to the position they hold, it can be an enormous psychological blow. One would be hard pressed to find a leader who does not experience some self-doubt and feelings of insecurity at some point in their career.

The pressures at the top can lead all but the steeliest to question whether they really deserve to be where they are, whether plaudits and rewards they receive are merited, and even whether they might, in fact, be a fraud.  If you run a company with hundreds of thousands of employees, it is natural to ask if I really deserve this.

“You would be very unusual if you felt otherwise,” says Kets de Vries. “But you would have to be quiet about it, because if anyone found out you felt like an impostor, they would question why you were there.”

All the world's a stage and all the leaders merely players

Emotionally, leadership is extremely taxing, but the stress is unseen to outsiders. “Leaders of multinationals are of course under huge strain, but credible, composed leaders have learned to mask this,” says Smith.

Mattila agrees. “They adopt the ‘do not let them see you sweat’ attitude, putting on a façade in order to send out nonverbal and verbal signals that say ‘Hey, everything is going to be OK, just believe in me and believe in what we are doing.’ In this way, the leader is also an actor. On the red carpet they may shine in public, putting on a confident face and masking the stresses and strains, even hiding their self-driven motivation from the people around them, convincing others that they are ultimately there to serve them and the organization. Leaders often have the ability to camouflage their real motives with a sense of obligation. A lot of management is theater,” says Mattila.

A lot of management is theater.”

“Leaders are on stage all the time and there is sometimes a certain amount of exaggeration in terms of how noble their goals are.”

Playing favorites, playing politics

While publically leaders may deny they practice favoritism, it is so basic to human nature that it is essentially unavoidable. When the buck stops with you, you naturally turn to the people you trust and rely on. Favoritism may be taboo, but it is a necessary evil.

“The best leaders are talent-spotters, gifted at assessing an individual’s skills and abilities,” says Smith. “It is this that helps them choose the right team for a particular project or task,” he says. Leaders rely on their favorites, but this is not a negative if their talent assessment skills are up to the challenge.

Playing politics is another leadership taboo. According to Smith, the most successful leaders play the politics game to the degree necessary to accomplish their goals.  Outstanding leaders who sustain leadership over time are driven by their vision, desire to achieve their aims, and do what they think is right. They need to play the game, even if they’re uncomfortable with it, to change the game.

Hero, servant or egoist? Who makes the best leader?

In reality organizations need all three traits in their leadership. Depending on where an organization is in its natural evolution, the leadership style that best serves its needs will change. Visionary is needed to kickstart a new strategy or reboot a failing one. At other times a selfless servant willing to do whatever it takes to push the organization forward is what is called for, and sometimes a charismatic, driven egotist with the power to lure others to the cause, instill belief, and fire people up for the challenges ahead is what is required.

The talented leader can adapt their style to fit the needs of the organization. The problem is we do not live in a perfect world. While undoubtedly talented and driven, leaders are as human as the rest of us.

This article was first published in Profile Magazine.

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