CEO Disease: Innoculation and Cure

Woman shhing

“Shhh! Don’t tell the boss!” Freeimages.com/Gerla Brakkee

I’m reading a book called Resonant Leadership* in which the authors describe a destructive illness called CEO Disease, but it is not only CEOs who suffer from it; a leader at any level in the organization can come down with it.  The disease is defined as the withholding of important information from a leader, usually because it is not good news.  Since a leader needs accurate information in order to lead, this is a real problem.  In their previous book, Primal Leadership, the authors say that people might withhold information for several reasons: they fear the leader’s wrath, they have a natural desire to please the boss, they want to be a team player, or they just want to be seen as upbeat people.

The research shows that CEO Disease is much worse when the information withheld relates to the leader’s personal performance or leadership skills rather than issues related to organizational performance.  An analysis of 177 separate studies of a total of 28,000 managers revealed that the more senior your position, the less reliable the feedback on your own performance!  Women and minorities get the least accurate performance feedback, I think because people don’t want to be mistaken for being misogynist or racist.

The result of having the disease is that the leader gets out of touch with reality and that seriously cripples their leadership.

Have you got it?

How do you know you have a disease when the only symptoms are the absence of something?  Well, you look for the absence of that something!  When was the last time someone came to you with a problem?  When did you last receive honest feedback about your performance or leadership style that was less than congratulatory?  Are you surrounded by ‘yes’ people?  Has anyone suggested an alternative to one of your suggestions recently?  When did you last have pushback from your direct reports?  If your team is not having real discussions with multiple viewpoints being expressed, if you have heard rumblings of discontent but not paid attention to them, then there’s a good chance you have the disease.

How do you innoculate against it?

I’m no expert on this, but I do have some ideas after thinking about it.

  • Create a culture of honesty.  Before I started at CCCC, I met with the staff and told them that the worst thing from my perspective was withholding bad news.  I or the team can do something to fix a problem if we know about it, but if we aren’t told, then there’s not much we can do about it until it explodes and becomes obvious to everybody!  This means that when someone ‘fesses up to a problem, the focus is first on correction of the problem, and secondly on correction of any systems that failed or were lacking, and thirdly on coaching or development of the staff (if warranted), but definitely not any punishment.  It must be safe for people to admit there is a problem.
  • Create a culture of experimentation and continuous learning.  Innovation is the engine that fuels organizational growth and continued viability, but by its very nature innovation involves risk-taking.  A culture of innovation therefore not only sustains your ministry, but also says that you don’t expect everything to work out perfectly all the time.  Failures should be re-interpreted as learning experiences.  Your team needs to know that learning from mistakes and failures is an important step in moving forward and that it is okay to admit to them.
  • Create a culture of direct communication.  I want any staff member to feel they can say whatever they want to me.  If someone feels hurt by me, for example, I want to know about it so I can apologize or explain.  (I’m assuming that you would not say something that you knew would be hurtful.)  I don’t have the opportunity to do that unless they speak up.  But the authors of Primal Leadership say that people don’t treat leaders the same as they treat everyone else.  They hold back on revealing information about you and your leadership (for self-protection), or they say things about you (in anonymous surveys) as though they do not care about your feelings, believing that a leader does not feel things as “normal” people do.  The first situation is a symptom of the disease, the second can be a very hurtful consequence of the disease as they finally have a safe opportunity to say what they want to say.  To avoid both situations, a leader needs to create a safe environment for people to say things they think are risky to say, but that need to be said, when they first want to say them.  Whether you sinned against someone else, or someone else sins against you, Jesus said in Mathew 5:23 and 18:15 to go directly to the person.  This principle of direct communication should apply at all times for everything.  It should not take an anonymous employee attitude survey to bring out hidden issues.  The leader bears responsibility for making a safe environment.  Attitude surveys should confirm what you already know, rather than reveal new information.
  • Do your own reality checks.  Every time information passes through someone’s hands it is likely being aggregated and interpreted, so that by the time it finally arrives in your hands it is far removed from the raw data that was collected.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t receive prepared reports, just that you need to have direct access to your own raw data so that you have some basis on which to read and assess the reports that you receive.  Go visit the field workers.  Attend the programs you run.  I visit our members as I travel so I can understand their needs better and hear first-hand what they think of CCCC.  When we do satisfaction evaluations or surveys, I read not only the summary reports but also the individual open-ended responses.  But checking the reality of organizational performance is only part of the picture.  There is also the reality of your own personal performance that needs validating.  Many leaders overrate their leadership skills and need a reality check in this area too.  I take care to get objective feedback through upward evaluation (I wrote about this in the CCCC Bulletin, 2008 Issue 1) and various developmental assessments.  You may be confronted by some hard criticism.  Take time to reflect on it, vent if you need to with someone who can help you work through it, and take ownership of the things you need to work on.  There may be some criticisms that are unfair or completely wrong, and others that are made without full knowledge of the circumstances.  Set the first aside after verifying with trusted advisors that the criticisms are groundless and, if appropriate, explain or at least address the rest without coming across as defensive.

The Cure

If you think you already suffer from CEO Disease, the cure is the same as the innoculation, except that you have some remedial work to do as well.  You’ll have to make your own decisions based on your team’s personalities and specific issues, but likely the issue of withholding information should be dealt with head-on.  It’s like the elephant on the table: everybody knows it is there but nobody wants to acknowledge it.  So the leader needs to lead, and acknowledge the elephant openly and say what the preferred scenario is for how information is delivered to the leader.  If your response to unwelcome news has been an issue, you’ll probably have apologies to make.  If you haven’t got them already, a grievance procedure and a whistleblower policy will show your commitment to protect your staff from negative consequences for revealing negative information.

A less direct option would be to just start asking more questions.  Tell your team there’s a problem or opportunity you’d like to address, and ask for their ideas.  If you suggest something and no one suggests anything else, ask them, “If we didn’t do it this way, how else could it be done?”  When something goes wrong, after it’s been addressed, discuss it with the team as a learning experience.  “When we encounter this in the future,” you might ask, “how could we handle it differently?”  If the problem you are reviewing was the result of an error, make sure the person responsible feels good about having asked for help.  If it was just generally bad news rather than an error, thank the person publicly who alerted you to the issue.

I’m sure there are lots of other things that could be done to innoculate or cure the disease, so feel free to contribute your ideas.  The main thing is, you’ve been called to leadership and you sure don’t want your leadership to become ineffective because people are not willing to deliver unpleasant news to you.  Feedback may be the breakfast of champions, but it is the lifeblood of leaders.

Resonant Leadership is a book with lots of case stories, but the more interesting book is its companion, Becoming a Resonant Leader.  This is a workbook to help you develop resonance.

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