CEOs: Their Own Worst Enemies?


A recent article in the Harvard Business Review discussed what CEOs most want from a leadership coach. (Link to the article: Research: What CEOs Really Want from Coaching.) Two interesting facts stood out. First, nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside coaches. Second, CEOs most want to develop their skills in conflict resolution.

ceocoachingIf you add these two facts up, one might conclude that CEOs can be their own worst enemies. Here’s the math: One of the keys to a leader’s success is to challenge one’s hard-wired assumptions, to accept responsibility, and to be open to new insights into one’s behavior. The same traits are key to dealing with conflict successfully. You have to accept your role in the conflict, listen carefully to gain new insights, identify common values, and commit to new behaviors. You have to ante up a piece of yourself to change.

Is there something inherent in the CEO role that makes it scary to open oneself up or to show vulnerability? The iconic picture we have of the CEO/leader is someone who is supremely confident in his or her decisions. So confident, in fact, that they have no need for outside counsel. This picture may be accurate for some. But having coached hundreds of business leaders, I see a different pattern. I see people who display a self-effacing quality that enables them to challenge their own assumptions. I see people who are naturally curious to learn about themselves. I see people who understand the arc of their evolution as leaders and know that it’s full of surprising twists and turns – and so, as a result, they are open to new surprises even as they grow older and more experienced. In short, I see people who are open to a process of continual change.

So are CEOs their own worst enemies when it comes to professional development? I would answer it this way. There are those who don’t know what they don’t know – and for them there’s little hope of change. But effective leaders are by definition open to change and understand the value of outside, objective counsel, feedback and coaching. In their case, they are their own best allies.

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