The absence of deep emotional self-awareness can seriously limit the impact of a CEO in leading out-of-the-box change. I’ve seen CEOs who couldn’t capitalize on the talents and commitment of strong women on their executive teams because they found such strengths threatening. I’ve observed CEOs who were unsuccessful in building critical partnerships and joint ventures with other organizations because they saw the world as a dark and dangerous place filled with competitors waiting to do them in. And I’ve come across CEOs whose need for security and control made them intolerant of the give-and-take of wide-open discussion and led them to impose on their organizations mechanistic long-range planning processes that substituted neatness and order for creative questioning and exploration. In these and other cases, what has struck me over the years is how hidden, unrecognized emotions can sabotage CEOs, causing them to see the world through an internal lens that distorts objective reality, and, hence, leads to inappropriate behavior.
I know that this might sound like psychobabble to some readers, but long experience has convinced me that the most effective change leaders are emotionally so self-knowledgeable that they aren’t easily sabotaged by deep-seated emotions they aren’t aware of. A few years ago, I worked with just such a CEO, who headed a large and highly successful senior services nonprofit. We were chatting one evening after getting through the first day of an intensive 1 ½-day work session kicking off the organization’s change planning process, when she confided that at one point in what’d been a great day she’d felt like lashing out at two of her board members. She said that when they’d raised some pretty pointed questions about her decision to pursue a merger with a sister agency a couple of months earlier, she out of the blue felt like a little girl again, being harshly judged by her parents, and the sudden surge of anger caught her off guard. Fortunately, she didn’t lash out, knowing that the anger — while a real emotion that she’d truly felt — was totally misplaced, having to do with a vulnerable little girl inside, not with the strong CEO she’d become. That’s what I mean by self-awareness.
This blog is adapted from Doug Eadie’s new book, Leading Out-of-the-Box Change (Governance Edge, 2012)