Are the Five CEO Temptations Limiting Your Leadership Potential?


Becoming a CEO isn’t the ultimate goal for the most successful CEOs. It is a status that they use to achieve great things, and they face ongoing temptations that threaten their potential. Here, Laura Brandenburg takes a look at the temptations in Patrick Lencioni’s Five Temptations of a CEO that can limit the potential of not only CEOs, but also anyone in a leadership position.

Leadership and authority do not always go hand-in-hand. As I discussed in my first article in this series on Seth Godin’s Tribes, organizations are looking for leaders at all levels. As we begin to take on more leadership responsibilities, regardless of whether or not we have managerial authority or the authority to make decisions, we can also learn from the books and ideas that executives read about becoming better leaders.

In Five Temptations of a CEO, a leadership fable by Patrick Lencioni, we read about the story of Andrew O’Brien, a CEO of one year, who is leading a company with “unspectacular at best” results. We meet him the night before a board meeting, the poor results of which make it clear that Andrew’s job is on the line. On his way home well after midnight, Andrew meets a man in the subway named Charlie, who teaches Andrew about the five temptations, any one of which will impact a leader’s success and all of which can be relevant to leaders at any level of the organization.

As you consider the five temptations, I encourage you to acknowledge which ones might be tempting you and, thereby, holding you back from delivering on your full leadership potential.

The First Temptation: Choosing Status over Results
The first temptation is putting your ego ahead of actually accomplishing something. This often surfaces when we view career status as more important than results. We’ve all been privy to situations where the project fails, yet we (or the project leader or the executive sponsoring the project) characterize things in such a way that even failure looks good. What does this do for the organization? Are we being honest or protecting our egos?

When Charlie asks Andrew about his proudest career moment, he answers that it was the day that he was promoted to CEO. This answer places career status ahead of results. Instead, a CEO should be driven by status to achieve something great—whether that’s opening a new service line, creating a new product, or achieving specific market results.

As you look back through your career, which milestones are most important to you—the promotions or the projects? Avoiding this temptation means that successful projects should be our proudest accomplishments and evidence that we are concerned with results, not just career status.

The Second Temptation: Choosing Popularity over Accountability
The second temptation involves wanting to be popular with your direct reports instead of holding them accountable for results. This often means you judge yourself by what other people think of you, which makes it difficult to set clear expectations and demand follow-through on commitments.

Andrew at first thinks he’s avoided this temptation because he recently fired Terry, his head of marketing. But, after further probing, it becomes clear that Andrew never set clear expectations nor held Terry responsible for his poor results during his ten months in the job. He did finally fire him, but it was a surprise to Terry. Firing someone and never having to deal with him again is a way of choosing popularity over accountability. Demanding excellent performance and dealing with the person day after day as he improves (or fails) towards incremental milestones means you might be unpopular for awhile, but you’ll be respected in the long-run.

In a project context, when a team member fails to meet a commitment, how do you handle the situation? Do you follow up and demand top performance? Do you listen to the excuses and give the team member the benefit of the doubt? Sure, there are extenuating circumstances and legitimate reasons for failing to deliver on occasion, but examining the root issues behind your own flexibility might give you a deeper insight into what’s more important to you—popularity or accountability.The Third Temptation: Choosing Certainty over Clarity
This temptation ensnares many project teams. With limited information, can your team make a decision? Or, can you lead your team towards a “good enough” decision? When we defer decisions until we have absolute certainty, we risk having unclear expectations in the meantime. How do you hold people accountable for results if it’s not even clear what direction you are headed in? Often, the role of the project leader is to evaluate the available information, listen carefully to conflicting opinions from the team, and then establish a clear direction. This means you might make a mistake. But without clarity and forward movement in a clear direction, you’ll fail slowly instead of failing fast and waste a lot of misdirected effort in the meantime.

As someone who might be leading from a position without authority and might not be in a decision-making position, your role in this temptation will be to help the decision maker avoid it. You might also tend to ask for extra time to do more research, further analysis, or more planning before making a recommendation. Don’t we always feel that there is not enough time for planning? In this moment of uncertainty, it can help to ask, “What’s the worst possible thing that can happen if we make the wrong decision?” and “What’s the impact of not making any decision right now?” Often, the benefits of making a clear decision outweigh the negative impact of making the wrong decision. This sort of analysis can help you suggest the best possible decision, given the limited information you have, and keep your project moving forward and out of “analysis paralysis.”

The Fourth Temptation: Choosing Harmony over Conflict
Harmony is a cancer to good decision making. If we all share the same opinion or fail to speak up when our opinion conflicts with the majority, we risk making bad decisions by false consensus. We choose with clarity but based on the wrong information. In order to make good decisions, we need discord, disagreement, and conflict. In an authoritative leadership role, this means you are willing to encourage healthy conflict amongst your team members as well as participate in conflict when your direct reports challenge your assumptions and decisions. As a contributor on a team, this means you are willing to engage in productive dialogue (that may look more like a big argument) about important issues with other members of your team and challenge your superiors.

The Fifth Temptation: Choosing Invulnerability over Trust
This temptation underlies all others. In an environment without trust, team members choose to protect themselves before giving to the team. They choose career status over results because results are not recognized. Or, they choose certainty over clarity because “wrong” decisions are punished. They avoid accountability to avoid negative consequences of failure.

Trust starts with organizational leadership. But, regardless of your role in the organization, you can choose to cultivate trust and be trustworthy. As a leader, cultivating trust starts with trusting others. Only then will they begin to trust you. And, yes, this means you might be vulnerable at times. Trusting the wrong person can have negative consequences in the short term, but you’ll realize it’s not fatal. And, in the long term, choosing trust will have positive benefits for your project and your career. Trust creates the openings by which others make meaningful contributions to your project, whether that means pointing out a flaw in your logic, challenging what they feel is a wrong decision, or taking on accountability for delivering actual results.

What Temptations Tempt You?
Those are the five temptations. As I look backward through my career, I see myself succumbing to each one of them at some point—a few more often than others. The temptations still challenge me today, and it’s likely that overcoming the temptations will be a lifelong process. By acknowledging the temptations, realizing my own limitations, and working to improve my resistance to them, I hope to become a stronger leader. What temptations tempt you, and how will you address them?

User Comments

1 comment
Jim Little's picture
Jim Little

Laura this is a good set of common sense principles that many of us need to be reminded of or remind others of vigilantly. Thank you for reminding us with this well written article.

August 30, 2011 - 8:01am

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