Leaders who move up the professional ladder have greater freedom to control their destinies. But they also experience increased pressure and seduction.
The corrosive effect of power on the human 'psyche' is as ancient as the human race. And for some, the temptation becomes too great. They engage in behaviors that violate their company’s own core values. They abandon their personal virtues. And slowly, they destroy themselves in their quest for power.
So why do leaders known for integrity and leadership engage in unethical activities? Why would they risk great careers and unblemished reputations? Do they think they won't get caught or believe their elevated status puts them above the law?
I don’t believe leaders who lose their way are necessarily bad people. I tend to believe they simply lose their moral bearings, yielding to seductions in their paths. They start to believe their own press. Let’s face it, when everyone defers to you, when the room quietens as you walk in, it’s easy to believe that you're just that good. For some, they begin to think they’re infallible. As leaders of institutions, they eventually believe the institution cannot succeed without them.
They wear their successes as coats of arms on their sleeves. In their chosen professional field, they paid their dues, moved up the ranks, and climbed the ladder of success -- creating and cultivating the necessary relationships that would support them to achieve whatever it is their ego-driven desires needed to achieve: power, rank, status, control, recognition. And, to be honest, they know their stuff. Their work becomes their addiction. And the adoration and power is their fix.
It's actually lonely at the top, because leaders know they are ultimately responsible for the lives and fortunes of people. If they fail, many get deeply hurt. They often deny the burdens and loneliness, becoming incapable of facing reality. They shut down their inner voice, because it is too painful to confront or even acknowledge; it may, however, appear in their dreams as they try to resolve the conflicts of business decisions made vs. their own personal virtues.
One day they wake up and they feel alone. The light in their eyes is gone. They have overcommitted themselves and their time to gaining power - but it honors nothing. They experience feelings of loneliness and deficiency that accompany the stark realization that the game is coming to an end. Their mask has worn thin and is disintegrating. Their personality costume covers nothing but a skeleton. The core of their being has been eaten away by the thirst for power.
They discover they really don't know who they are anymore. Disconnected from their own humanity, they are emotionally distant. They are incapable of forging deep relationships. They experience estrangement from their spouses or partners, distance from their loved ones, and often end up engaging in superficial affairs, one-night stands, and uncomfortable and clunky liaisons -- all in an effort to find and feel a deeper self that has alluded them.
In reality, they're searching for, longing for, their soul. Unfortunately, it’s long lost - covered over and abandoned. Along the way, they jettisoned their need for truth. They isolated themselves from real relationships and real connections. They traded away their soul for control, recognition, power and security.
The old tale of the Emperor who had no clothes reminds us that those leaders who consistently succeed probably have great supporters and advisers who are willing to tell the truth, at risk of losing favor. The enduring leaders are wise enough to recognize the value that others offer, and respond to truth-telling constructively rather than destructively.
My advice to aspiring leaders is simply this. Don’t ever start believing the pablum that goes into your press releases. Aristotle saw character, ethics, virtue and excellence as intrinsically intertwined. So, remain authentic. Hold tightly to your integrity, your virtues and your humanity. These are the greatest assets of all - not your money nor your stock options.
Michael is an executive coach, entrepreneur, investor, and strategist with 30 years of experience leading investor-backed, high-growth organizations.
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