Keeping Your Feet On the Ground

Roderick Kramer thinks that leaders need to nurture their humility.

Why do so many individuals seem to fall prey to stunning bouts of folly once they seize power? Attributing it to personal failings or lack of moral fiber seems too glib—after all, wouldn't the flaws have emerged earlier in the leaders' careers? As a psychologist and consultant to many businesses, I've spent most of my career researching the process of getting to the top. I've found that there is something about the pursuit of power that often changes people in profound ways. Indeed, to get to the apex of their profession, individuals are often forced to jettison certain attitudes and behaviors—the same attitudes and behaviors they need for survival once they get to the top. During the high-tech boom, we saw risk-taking and rule-breaking as markers of good leadership. As a result, we often ended up with leaders who lacked the prudence, sense of proportion, and self-restraint needed to cope with the trappings of power.

Several ways of keeping your feet on the ground are given, but I like these two in particular.

"It helps to remain awfully ordinary," one CEO told me. A Hollywood executive I spoke with said, "I love this industry, but if you get caught up in the glamour and celebrity, it's easy to lose touch with reality. I just don't do the star parties or the private screenings or the power breakfasts any more than I absolutely have to. I love the Oscars—but I watch [the show] every year from my couch, surrounded by my kids and a few friends, just like everyone else." Such normal behavior may seem lackluster, but it helps leaders stay in touch with themselves and with other ordinary people, including their customers and employees. Indeed, if high-flying leaders hope to stay on top, they would do well to nurture their humility. It helps people view their accomplishments, and their foibles, with detachment. It also helps people to see adversity through a healthy lens. The best way of developing humility is to remind ourselves of what really matters in life. Take it from Warren Buffett. When asked how he learned to handle his enormous power and wealth, he said, "I live now the way I lived thirty years ago."

Successful leaders strive to become more reflective. That's paradoxical given that today's business culture celebrates action over hesitancy. Americans in particular admire leaders who break new ground, transform industries, and smash glass ceilings. Given this overemphasis on doing, perhaps it's not surprising that many of the fallen leaders I studied appeared to have a strikingly impoverished sense of self. Though they often know how to read others brilliantly, they remain curiously oblivious to many of their own tendencies that expose them to risk. When Bill Clinton was interrogated about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, for example, he made the startling disclosure that he assumed all along that Monica would tell some of her friends about what was going on. Perhaps he should have spent a little more time reflecting about which friends—and with what consequences.

I think this relates to the comments found in this earlier post about Michael Dell's introversion. Many people will disagree, but I think introverts can make good leaders for these very reasons. They are more self-reflective, and they don't want to go party with the stars and live that fast paced life style. Of course, I'm introverted, so I guess I am biased.

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