For decades, we’ve told CEOs to be humble. It’s fine to be confident, even fiercely determined, we say, but arrogance will bring you down. The ideal leader respects and listens to colleagues, communicates honestly, adjusts opinions when confronted with new evidence, and makes decisions that strengthen the organization rather than his or her own position.
The problem is that everything else in corporate life pushes CEOs in the opposite direction. To rise in the organization, executives have to focus relentlessly on themselves. If they win the tournament, they gain power and prestige that isolates them. Arrogance is almost inevitable, as is (somewhat paradoxically) paranoia.
When consultant Roger Jones interviewed dozens of CEOs and other senior executives, he kept seeing the same five deep-seated fears. They worried about appearing to be incompetent, vulnerable, and foolish; they worried about under-achieving; and they feared political attacks from their colleagues. None of these top-of-mind fears involved the businesses or the organizations they led. The leaders were caught up in themselves, and their fears were limiting their effectiveness.
Jones’s findings struck me powerfully because of a difficult experience I had more than a decade ago. I had been a rising manager at Prologis, a fast-growing industrial real estate company (think warehouses for lease) in the S&P 500. In 2004, I became the chief operating officer, working closely with the CEO. Over time, however, we disagreed about the pace of growth, and I quit in early 2008. Then the financial crisis hit the company hard, the CEO resigned, and the board asked me in November to come back and take his place. Soon after I settled in, our already weak financial position declined further.
Matters came to a head during a long evening meeting with the CFO and his staff. Bankruptcy seemed inevitable, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of giving up on the company I had helped to build. Everyone was looking to me for a decision — but I excused myself to walk around and clear my head.
Actually, my head was spinning. I managed to grab a chair in another room before fainting. I quickly regained consciousness and returned to the meeting, but I still had no idea what to say. All I could manage was, “I don’t know what to do,” and “I need your help.”
It was my worst nightmare — I felt incompetent, vulnerable, and foolish. (Sound familiar?) But then a remarkable thing happened. After a stunned silence, the CFO and other colleagues essentially said “We’re with you,” and “We’ll figure it out.”
Somehow we did. Thanks to a lot of diligence, creative thinking, and luck, we bought enough time with creditors to sell some assets at a decent price and pay down debt. Once we stabilized, we went to work correcting the problems that the growth years had masked — in particular, a culture of deep distrust. My willingness to say that I didn’t know what to do at a key moment actually reduced people’s insecurities and reset expectations. It also liberated me from my own fears, at least for a while. Over the next four years, we rebuilt the company to its former heights and more.
Not everything went smoothly — we laid off almost a third of our workforce, which was painful in itself and also slowed down the process of developing trust. But when I retired in 2013, Prologis was solidly profitable and the largest company worldwide in its industry.
I don’t recommend my 2008 ordeal to anyone. If I hadn’t built up credibility with the other executives in previous years, my vulnerability might well have blown up in my face. But I do think that CEOs and other senior executives can and should take steps to reduce arrogance and its underlying partner, fear. The key is to reset your workplace emotions through “microclimates” — settings that are free of the pervasive ego-expanding and ego-threatening effects of the job. Here are three steps I recommend to keep the focus off of yourself.
The first is to get out of the C suite. I don’t mean traveling, which usually reinforces your exalted status. I made a point of having lunch with a non-executive employee at least once a week. Sometimes we talked about their role in the company, but mostly we chatted about our families, weekend plans, and other pleasures. Neuroscientists have found that we can reduce our fears simply by talking to others. And non-executive employees won’t stimulate paranoia.
The second is to trust your colleagues more than you think is wise. Too often what you think is wisdom is really just arrogance and fear talking. In most cases that I intentionally chose to trust a colleague, it was the right decision. I got burned a few times, but the goodwill I generated with this approach more than compensated for the occasional short-term damage.
The third is to give people the attention they deserve. It’s a gift that also builds goodwill, and rarely backfires. Not only does it pay off over time with easier conversations later if things get stressful, but it subtly changes your frame of reference. Most executives are quick to give their own opinions, putting subordinates who think differently in a vulnerable position. I forced myself to listen before I chimed in. That helped stimulate a wider range of ideas, which put us in a better position to succeed. And it kept the attention off me.
CEOs have lots of ways to improve their performance, from hiring coaches to changing strategies. But the most important might be emotional: Using disciplined practices to overcome the fears — and the arrogance — that dampen their effectiveness.
This content was originally published here.