Despite today’s trend toward flatter, self-managed, networked organizations marked by empowerment and collective decision-making, the persona of the CEO maintains a certain mystique. We hold the CEO to a super-human standard. We expect him or her (alas, too often, him) to articulate a grand vision, lead transformative change, and exhibit agility and cunning. We also expect the CEO will guard against risk, preside over productivity and profit, and care for people. Talk about leaping over tall buildings in a single bound!
“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s….what we miraculously expect of our CEO!”
THE LEGEND PERSISTS
Even when we claim a philosophy that “we’re all really the same,” the super-hero CEO legend persists. We put people in that role on a pedestal. And very often they put themselves up on the pedestal, too. We readily buy into the legend because we’re attracted to the comfort of a wise and powerful protector. But we’re also attracted to our heroic CEO legend because of the dark side…the inner struggle. The idea that someone so impressive and mighty hides a serious weakness.
Like Superman, every CEO does indeed possess some flaws and weakness: their personal kryptonite. As a result of the hyped expectations we place on someone in the role, the CEO can find herself terribly susceptible to a fear that perceived weakness will expose her as unworthy of her role. In response, a CEO often thinks privately, “Don’t admit to it. Don’t reveal it. Don’t dwell on it. No allowance or time for that. After all, I am the CEO and everyone relies on me.”
…and so back at the office, on a bad day our hero/CEO feels lonely, grumpy, misunderstood, or even paranoid. The fear of his kryptonite serves as a sort of professional poison that can dull performance and sabotage relationships. He feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, but when duty calls, he dons his hero costume, puffs up his chest, sets his mere humanity aside, and jumps bravely into action. All the while, harboring a fear of being discovered.
TAKING CONTROL OF THE LEGEND
A CEO can find the antidote to this professional poison by taking back control and humanizing her own story. If you’re a CEO, or other senior level leader, feeling the weight of expectations on you, feeling a fear of under-performing because you’re only human, here’s how to humanize yourself while still living up to your responsibilities. It’s about writing your own story rather than living up to someone else’s legend.
- High and Lows: Think back over time to identify choice highs and lows in your career trajectory. A few key moments when your innate strengths and abilities shone through, or when you persisted and overcame adversity.
- Values and Traits: Allow yourself to truly adopt those choice moments as chapters in the story of what brought you to where you are today, and consider what values and character traits each of these chapters represent.
- Re-Telling Your Way: Take all this reflection and literally journal your story, allowing yourself to be as creative as you like. Notice the descriptions you choose to make in re-telling your story.
- Look Forward: Now write a future-oriented chapter that tells the tale of how you are and who you are as a leader. What strengths and abilities do you imagine you are known for? What weaknesses do you see you’ll have, and how will you rely on others for support? What are the tools, practices, and allies you turn to when facing big challenges?
- Confidants: Name your closest advisors and confidants and have courage to share your story with them. You’ve got to let a few into your circle of confidence…even the strongest superheroes need trusted friends and allies.
- In Public: Create a public version of your newly re-claimed story and be sure it’s reflected in the biography you use, on your social media profiles, in the way you introduce yourself in speaking engagements.
- A Tool of Resilience: Adopt a consistent practice of examining challenging situations you confront in light of the character strengths, values, and perceived weaknesses captured in your story. Use this as a tool of resilience.
- Mentor: During moments when you are acting as an ally, advisor, or mentor to others, encourage them to follow these same practices of taking ownership of their story, so that they, too, can be a leader who fulfills their responsibilities without undue fear of their own kryptonite.
I’ve worked up close with many CEOs. Without exception they’ve been talented, passionate, dedicated people. And I’ve found invariably that when their followers and they themselves resist the allure of superhero expectations is when they are truly able to shine.