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The Hunger for Selfless Leaders

“I care more about the overall well being of the organization and the staff than I do about my own career trajectory. When I am making challenging decisions my well being isn’t even part of the equation.” This is a real statement made by a very effective and humble leader. And his actions back up his sentiments.

How many of you can say that this is your posture as a leader? How many of you work for this kind of leader? I’m guessing not many. Yet when I check the stats for this blog all the entries related to “understated leaders” are routinely at the top of the list. Which is why I say there is a hunger out there. We are all sick and tired of disingenuous leaders who hold tight to their power and control and think about themselves first and the rest of us be damned. And don’t even get me started on the example that Trump offers! Not as a political candidate but as a business leader.

I could offer too many real examples of self centered leaders but I trust that you know about these types all too well. My shorthand for these leaders is The Emperor Without Clothes. So caught up in his own hype and grandeur that he is oblivious to the fact that everyone in the organization sees just how naked he is. No amount of ” we are all in this together” or “we will all win” cheerleading sessions erase the bald truth: his payday will be huge and everyone else’s will be uncertain. “Belt tightening” never includes the CEO. Those with less will get less. Those with more will get the same or more. I feel a rant coming on. Stay away from the dark side, Nicki! Shift gears!

I’ve been wracking my brains about how to help the majority of us who are beholding to these Emperors. We don’t have the power. They really can do bad things to us if we honestly tell them what we think. There is no possibility of leading them down the path to enlightenment. We can’t do magic behind the scenes to get the board to see the light. Do we just have to put up and shut up?

In the absence of enough understated, humble, servant, self aware leaders to go around, here are a few insights and tips for managing the Emperors.

  • They love adulation so don’t suck up to them. The more the staff is populated with sycophants, the more the leader will believe he is wonderful and generous and kind. The flattery reinforces his bloated self image. Don’t feed the beast!
  • They will show their fangs if you piss them off. Don’t put yourself in jeopardy by pushing back too hard, making them look foolish in public, badmouthing one of their allies in private or any other common sense no-no’s. You may think you are getting an inside edge but in reality you are digging your own grave.
  • Be very wary of being pulled into his inner circle. Politics at the top are tricky enough. Don’t add power-fueled antics to the mix. You may feel flattered that you were tapped but it is more likely that bad things will happen to you (not to mention your soul) if you enter whatever ring of Dante’s inferno is labeled “the CEO’s posse”. Draw firm boundaries around these requests. CEO: I’d like to take you into my confidence to discuss Joe with you. You: I appreciate your trust in me but Joe and I are essential partners and I am uncomfortable having this conversation without him present. (Exception: if this request comes from an understated leader it will be part of a broader, transparent feedback process that many are going through.)
  • When you establish appropriate distance don’t worry about it. When an Emperor realizes that you are impervious to his ego needs he will simply move on to the next victim (oops, I mean colleague). Lest you are concerned that he will sit around thinking or saying, “Damn, that Nicki just turned down a great opportunity to get more face time with me. She clearly doesn’t care about her career!”…think again. A narcissist’s only thoughts about themselves. You were a momentary flash that will be forgotten before you get back to your office.
  • Focus on being highly productive and let the chips fall where they may. If you are doing a great job, that’s all that matters. Let others applaud you. In fact, that provides safety in numbers for you. Emperors like the spotlight (see number one) and can only tolerate your glory for short (well choreographed…thank you HR and communications staff) spurts. If you are on the executive team and the Emperor is your boss, continue to do great work and enjoy the kudos from your peers and staff.
  • DO NOT SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER unless you don’t need your job. Emperors don’t want the truth, they can’t handle the truth so don’t be the little child in the parade that shouts out that he isn’t wearing any clothes. The better alternative is to say nothing.

My point here is, given that most of us don’t have unassuming, low ego bosses, we have to figure out ways to be successful and feel good about ourselves and our work under the thumb of someone who can’t be trusted to care about the organization or the staff. Understated leaders are hard to find but the craving for them grows by the day. So tread carefully with the devil that you know and work your ass off to become self aware and generous of spirit and focused on the greater good and others.

And note to self: stop binge watching The Borgias!


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