Over 70% of employees characterized their relationship with their boss negatively according to a recent Monster poll for National Boss’s Day on Tuesday. Although hardly scientific, the poll is a timely reminder of the power of a boss to make the work experience a good one or a bad one.
As an executive wellness coach, I work with CEOs as well as executives who report directly to the CEO. Seeing this relationship from both sides of the table, I understand how difficult it is to be a CEO and how difficult it is to have a toxic boss. I know that the worse CEO behavior stems from insecurity. Indeed, a survey of 402 CEOs from eleven countries found that only 32% of CEOs felt adequately prepared for the job.
However, overcompensating for insecurity with narcissism or an authoritarian leadership style is not the answer. The top two complaints in the Monster poll—that the boss is power-hungry or micro-manages—mirror what I hear from clients all the time. Insecure CEOs feel threatened by intelligent and independent thinkers and doers. They promote the wrong people while alienating their best people. The result is a toxic environment that can threaten the health of the entire company.
The high cost of revolving door syndrome
When you alienate your best people, you risk losing them to a competitor. The costs of bad leadership do not end there. Your team’s commitment and loyalty will be out the door before they physically leave, resulting in diminished engagement and productivity that will trickle down to those they supervise.
A company that develops a reputation for high turnover will eventually have trouble attracting and retaining top talent—the greatest cost of a bad boss. Just as a scandal or product recall can damage a brand’s reputation in a way that takes years to undo, a company’s reputation as a good (or bad) place to work is an asset whose value is impossible to put a price on.
Take the ego out of CEO
Some of my clients joke that in their company, CEO stands for Chief Egotistical Officer. These are companies where the CEO has a burning desire to always be right and tend to undermine others so that they can appear to be smarter. They are more likely to start sentences with I than with We when speaking publicly or to shareholders.
By contrast, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal summarizes several studies finding that humility, not ego, is most effective at inspiring teamwork, rapid learning, and high performance. Fortunately, that same article reports, there is a growing recognition of the value of humility for today’s business leader. Next year Hogan Assessments, a leader in designing workplace personality tests, will release a new scale for measuring humility in prospective leaders.
The myth of the charismatic CEO
The CEO Genome Project is a ten-year study that examined thousands of CEOs in search of what makes a successful leader. It concludes that the traditional image of the prototypical CEO as charismatic and autocratic is outdated and in need of serious revision.
The most conscious leaders are builders of bridges and creators of connection. That includes connection between CEOs and top management, management and their teams, employees and their peers. It also includes connection between a brand and its mission, a company, and its customers.
Paradoxically, in a knowledge economy, leaders have less and less of a need to be know-it-alls. The best leaders are generalists who connect specialists with one another. They create an environment for collaboration and innovation and step back instead of dictating what their employees should be doing.
The most critical knowledge for today’s leader is people knowledge, and that begins with self-knowledge.
Humble leaders understand and accept their limitations and admit what they do not know. On that basis, they can seek the help and input they need and delegate freely. This enables them to be generous with their praise as well as financially reward and promote high performers. Their team will be left feeling valued and appreciated and motivated to continue to do their best work. Leaders build a culture that is bigger than they are, and one which will outlast them.
Be generous with power
The insecure CEO views power as a finite resource—something to be guarded carefully and shared cautiously if at all. The enlightened CEO, coming from a place of humility and deeper self-assurance, sees power as something to be shared.
When leaders share power, they empower their employees and teams. Another way to look at power is as energy. When leaders empower employees, they energize them. When you give a trusted colleague an idea and let them run with it, you encourage them to invest more than time and effort. You invite them to invest a part of themselves.
In a knowledge economy, energy—the energy of ideas, initiative, and innovation—is a renewable resource. Put faith in your best people and that investment will pay off many times over.
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Published on Forbes on Oct. 19, 2018