Too much ME in CEO?

Given the mythical expectations on a CEO, it is easy to fall in love with the role and the picture of oneself.

CEOs need a great dose of confidence, ambition and ability to get people along on the journey. At every moment, they are the supreme personification of the company’s mission and movement. They better be tireless and at all times focused on the opportunities that lie ahead. There is just one CEO so they must operate with no downtime.

Me a superstar

With such mythical expectations, it is easy for the CEO to fall in love with their role and the picture of themselves. Specifically, when self-confidence is faltering, which at times it does for all of us, we tend to numb the feeling of insufficiency with self-absorption and self-indulgence.

If we let it go too far, we become unbearable. At the extreme, this condition is a pathology called narcissism. There lives a tiny Narcissos in all humans. When we acknowledge that, we can manage our self-obsession to a minimum. This makes us more successful and more at ease with ourselves and our surroundings.

Great leaders learn to combine their unwavering confidence with equally solid humility and selflessness. They know they are good but they don’t make an issue of it. They know they are not perfect but they don’t freak out about it. They know they know a lot, yet they are eager to learn from others. When things go wrong, they accept responsibility and are ready to show vulnerability. When things go well, they make sure the team is credited.

“Great leaders learn to combine their unwavering confidence with equally solid humility and selflessness.

Here is a checklist for CEOs to see how self-absorbed they are:

  1. Do you say “I” or “We”? Do you say “me and Kerry” or “Kerry and me”? When you write emails or other texts, do many of your sentences start with the word “I”?
  2. When you appear on photographs, do you typically appear alone or with other people? On your LinkedIn profile, is your picture about you speaking to an audience? Is there perhaps even a microphone visible in the photo – you speaking and others listening?
  3. On LinkedIn, Twitter and other public places where you define yourself, do you use words such as “thought leader”, “guru”, “noted authority”, or “innovator”?
  4. Do you frequently google your own name? Check your CEO score on Glassdoor? Check how many contacts or followers you have on social media? See who has liked and shared your posts?
  5. If at an internal meeting there is a question and you know the answer, do you always provide it?
  6. Do you have a lot of special small requirements on travel or meetings organized for you?
  7. Do you often recount to others something you experienced, or perhaps some event where you did very well?
  8. Do you get angry with colleagues? Do you apportion blame?
  9. Are you superficially friendly but in reality indifferent to other people’s well-being?
  10. Do you think you already know all your weaknesses, so feedback to you is not really useful? If you receive constructive criticism, do you respond with an explanation?

If you answer Yes to questions above, it is time to stop for self-reflection. It may be time for a 360 degree review where your team is asked to provide anonymous feedback on you. Perhaps you need more time for yourself.

This could be the time to engage an executive coach – a person who will have your best development as their sole goal. If not a coach, perhaps a mentor. It will be important to have an independent and neutral person whose job it is to believe in you.

The root cause for selfish behavior is nearly always a sense of insufficiency. Deep down we worry that we are not good enough or not worthy. We fear rejection.

In reaction to our self-doubt, we collect around ourselves superficial signs of omnipotence and worth. For instance, we call ourselves a “noted authority” because in reality we cannot face the thought of not being one. We pose on LinkedIn profile pictures as a speaker because we worry that we are not being listened to. We become difficult in order to remind people of our authority.

If you are working with a CEO who seems self-absorbed, whether you are a board member or someone in the CEO’s team, there are concrete steps you can take. Firstly, make it clear to the person that you believe in her or him. It may be as simple as stating “I love working with you”. You can say it many times. Ask how you can help make the CEO more successful.

When inevitably a situation happens where the CEO did not do a perfect job, apply two contrasting behaviors. On the one hand, make sure that the mistake gets spoken out so that there is no doubt about both of you knowing that things didn’t go well. On the other hand, show the CEO that this did not reduce their worth or usefulness. Ask how you can help get things in shape again. Over time, confidence between the two of you will start building. You are becoming a useful truth-sayer. You know that the egos are losing out when you can joke with each other and make fun of each other’s weaknesses.

When CEOs learn to be selfless, they will enjoy their work more, and so will the team around them. A culture of accountability will ensue. The company will do better on the long term.

Mårten Mickos

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