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Lonely and Dangerous

It's common knowledge that it's lonely at the top, but few realize how lonely -- and how dangerous this insularity can be to your business.
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The role of a CEO is unlike any other. Whereas managers at every other level have peers and superiors to consult, the CEO's position is one of almost absolute isolation. The friends and support network that a mid-level or rising manager relies on for honest feedback largely disappears as one-time colleagues transform or are replaced by sycophants pursuing their private agendas. Perhaps it is the realization that they are no longer receiving honest information that causes many CEOs to take a "Lone Ranger" approach to decision making. For others, a lack of faith in staff or even personal insecurities can cause them to disengage from their employees. Regardless of the specific reason, the solo path is almost always a recipe for disaster.

As easy as it is to blame a CEO's staff for avoiding honest interactions with the boss, many CEOs unwittingly encourage such behavior. In Dr. Travis Bradberry and Dr. Jean Greaves' ongoing research into emotional intelligence (broadly characterized as skill in managing interpersonal relationships) CEOs, on average, scored significantly lower than any other classification of job title. Furthermore, the research showed that emotional intelligence peaked with mid-level managers and quickly declined with each higher classification of position, (i.e. directors scored lower than managers, senior executives scored lower than directors, CEOs scored lowest of all). While a good leader believes he is accountable to everyone, it appears a lot of CEOs believe they are accountable to no one.

But is this really dangerous? After all, if the information a CEO receives is always "spun," perhaps a CEO is better off shutting out the noise and flying solo. Unfortunately for all of the low EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) CEOs out there, it is virtually impossible to make good decisions in a vacuum. As I mentioned in a previous column, leaders almost exclusively rely on their frontline personnel for customer feedback and information. And while a good leader encourages honest reporting, a great leader will actively tap the decision-making of his employees. The benefits to a CEO, or any manager, of including his staff in the decision-making process is three-fold.

The first benefit is that workers are always more engaged when they have been involved in decisions that affect them. The second benefit is that engaging employees in the process opens the door for more direct and honest discourse. The final benefit is that, contrary to what many people believe, groups almost always make better decisions than individuals.

How does a CEO tap the collective intelligence of his staff without falling into untenable compromises or groupthink? More than just asking for honest feedback from employees or getting rid of "yes men," a CEO who truly wishes to tap the collective intelligence of his staff for important decisions must first understand the distinguishing traits of good group decision-making. The two primary conditions that must exist are diversity of opinion within the group and a way to aggregate those opinions without bias. For an example of this, consider a Las Vegas betting line. The line moves as people give their opinions -- in the form of bets. The group itself is anyone who wishes to place a bet, so we see we have both a diversity of opinion and a way to aggregate those opinions without bias. How accurate are the results of this process? The final Las Vegas betting line for sporting events is typically the most reliable predictor of the actual outcome.

Unfortunately, the position of CEO as the unparalleled leader of the company makes this kind of unbiased flow of opinion almost inconceivable. Out of fear or self-interest most employees won't even tell the emperor he has no clothes, let alone share their ideas on how the company should be run. In order to prevent himself from becoming completely isolated or surrounded by advisors who do nothing more than reinforce whatever idea he puts forth, a CEO must spend significant time and effort actively pursuing feedback from as many sources as possible. It may seem obvious, but a CEO should never hesitate to open his door. Craig Barrett, the former CEO of Intel didn't even have a door -- he sat in a cubicle. Manage by walking around. Ask for feedback directly. Perhaps most importantly let it be known that you welcome opposing positions. Only by creating such an open culture, and doing so by example, can a CEO hope to turn the tide against the isolation that naturally comes with the position.

Many people believe a leader's consistency and unwavering dedication to a goal are the most valuable traits a CEO can possess. But when combined with the blindness and deafness that result from the isolation of the position, such determination can quickly lead the most well-intentioned CEOs down a fool's path.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2006




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