According to research described in a recent issue of The New Yorker, successful entrepreneurs tend to be overconfident. Whether they're starting a company or working within one, they envision an outcome and communicate that vision to others ... all while ignoring the possibility of failure.
Once successful entrepreneurs become CEOs, that overconfidence can turn from an asset into a liability, according to research conducted by Hal Gregersen, the executive director of MIT's Leadership Center, that he recently described in an interview in The Atlantic.
During a series of interview with 200 CEOs, including Elon Musk, Ed Catmull, Sara Blakely, and Marc Benioff, Gregersen discovered that the biggest challenge most CEOs face is becoming insulated from what's really happening at the lower levels of the organization. As Gregersen points out:
"Most leaders, if they're getting promoted to give answers, they're used to talking all the time. Unfortunately, a lot of people in organizations are more than happy to let leaders talk and take responsibility."
It's more than just shifting responsibility upward. The executives reporting to a CEO often have a vested interest in concealing problems from the CEO and the rest of the management team. Questioning the CEO's "vision" with contrary data or perspectives becomes an act of political suicide.
To overcome the tendency toward overconfidence and inevitable insularity in the CEO's role, Gregersen believes that CEOs must learn to keep silent. He notes the following about Pixar's Ed Catmull:
"[I]f you go to him and say that something might be wrong and uncomfortable, he almost always gives it a 24-hour gestation period before he'll really respond to it."
Gregersen also cites the example of the long-running television show Undercover Boss, where the only way the CEO can break through layers of BS is by pretending to be an entry-level worker, a position that forces him (or her) to remain silent.
Most CEOs, when confronted with data contrary to their "vision," tend to react negatively, as in the recently viral video of a random Uber driver gobsmacking CEO Travis Kalanick:
In contrast to Kalanick's cluelessness, Gregersen points out that "Steve Jobs knew how to be quiet when he was on the hunt for new information. He would ask, and he would listen properly." Indeed, here's Jobs himself explaining how he saw listening to adverse opinions as an important part of his job: