When visiting with senior executives, we often talk about the “power of the chair.” Many recognize, using a line from the Spider Man movie, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” They know they need to use this power in a very thoughtful manner.
However, recently the discussion about the power of the chair has turned to the burden of confidentiality that comes with being a senior leader. Routinely, senior leaders know more about what is going on than they can say. Furthermore, they often can not visit about it with any one at work. As these issues surface, e.g. the potential impact of a reorganization, leaders often sit in a room and know who is being coached out, who is being coached up, and who will loose their job due to the reorganization. They recognize that as a leader these choices need to be made. They also know they are not easy.
Recently, many executives have come to realize that having the power of the chair means that they can not choose popularity over accountability or harmony over productive conflict. These two key concepts from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Temptations of a CEO: A Leadership Fable are critical to their success. They realize that the solution to the burden of confidentially and the wise use of power is to build a very healthy senior team, to find allies and confidents who can listen in a respectful manner, and to always think about the impact of their actions as leaders before moving forward.
At the same time, if we seek personal excellence in our work as leaders, we must continue to rekindle our passion for the work we do. Twice in my life, I have hit the proverbial wall and asked the question, “Is this it?” Once right after leaving my first job as a teacher, I returned to the trades. Over a lunch discussion with co-workers who told stories about the crazy things they did when they were drunk, I asked myself, “Is this it?”
Once in my 40’s when my business was in a boom period and I was flying and teaching all over the place, I realized that I was never home. I also discovered that when I was home I was mentally still at work. Then, I realized that when I die, all my clients will come to my funeral. They will say nice things about my work, but I wondered what my wife and children would actually say. At times like that, I paused and asked myself, “Is this it?”
Then, in my 50’s this question changed as I changed. Rather than asking “is this it?”, I came to the realization that “this could be it.” I could keep doing this between now and when I retire. It would not be too bad. It was manageable and good enough, just more of the same.
But with this realization, I kept thinking of Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great where he states, “Good is the enemy of great.” The pathway to leading from the place of personal excellence requires all of us to not accept “just good enough.” We have to reclaim our desire for greatness, passion and wanting to make a difference. We have to not settle into ruts of mediocrity and just roll with the issues. We need to realize that we are the program and the programmer. If we need to upgrade the program, we also need to upgrade the programmer.
One pathway to this level of work is to develop or expand our “circles of trust,” a Parker Palmer term. With the burden of confidentiality, we need to surround ourselves with others who recognize that leading solo can yield anxiety and fear. We need people in our lives who know how to support without judgement. We also need to build more personal and professional relationships with people who comprehend that discernment happens best through dialogue and reflection.
Next, we need to proactively build this level of trusting and supportive community so that the front of the house, our work, and the back of the house, our personal lives, are the same house. And if we have this already in place, then we need to proactively maintain it. Too many leaders are now watching their circles of trust decline through neglect.
Remember: people, boards and organizations all want great leadership. We, as those leaders, must lead with good hearts and a clear mind if it is going to happen.