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Leading Without Ego: A Management Expert on Avoiding “The Leadership Killer”

Congratulations – you’re the boss. And condolences – your power means your personality flaws will become magnified. In their book The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance, Bill Treasurer and Capt. John R. Havlik argue that almost as soon as a manager gains supervisory power, overconfidence and poor judgment enter the picture as potential pitfalls.

“Hubris turns the leader’s attention away from enriching the lives of others, to enriching himself,” the authors write.

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Treasurer, who calls himself “chief encouragement officer” at Giant Leap Consulting, spoke to getAbstract about his leadership philosophy.

getAbstract: You describe the worst type of boss — one who rules by intimidation, fear and arrogance. Isn’t that kind of old-school approach fading away in modern organizations?

Treasurer: I’ve been practicing leadership development for 25 years, and as long as I’ve been practicing, I’ve heard this rumor of the demise of the “old-school approach” to leadership. My experience working with thousands of leaders makes me think otherwise. Leadership comes with power, and power is potent and, potentially, behaviorally corrosive. The person who has minor control issues before moving into a leadership role may become a control freak when they get a taste of power. Not always, but certainly often.

It doesn’t matter how hip a person may be before moving into a leadership role. A gent with a beard and tattoo sleeves will be just as susceptible to obnoxious “old-school” leadership behavior as a buttoned-up square. What matters is, how does the new leader use their newfound power? It takes a tremendous amount of self-governance to keep one’s ego in check when moving into a leadership role.

US unemployment is at a 50-year low. Does that raise the stakes for leaders and require them to embrace a more humble style?

Treasurer: Yes! The pendulum of leverage is swinging back to employees. When job opportunities are abundant, and you have the choice between a decent job and a bad boss, or a decent job with a good boss, the choice is obvious. And, yes, I see humility as being essential to being a good boss. In this environment, where employees have more leverage, leaders would be wise to consider if they’re the kind of leader a job prospect would want to be led by.

If I’m one of these toxic leaders, is it possible to reform? Where do I start? What’s my first step toward change?

Treasurer: If you’re a toxic leader, the most likely catalyst for change will be a major fail. Hubris is the single most consistent behavioral attribute that toxic leaders share, and the simplest definition of hubris is dangerous overconfidence. The larger the ego, the more sure of judgment — and the more blind one gets to one’s flaws. The overconfidence that comes with leadership toxicity almost always results in a startling failure at some point. Often, though, this can be the best thing to happen to a leader because humiliation is the entry point of humility. Now the toxic leader can make what I call the “Holy Shift!” – shifting from self-focus to serving others.

Short of a humiliating event, purposely going through a 360-degree feedback process is another approach to closing blind spots and bringing about positive leadership changes. When a leader can see unassailable data about the inadequacies of his or her leadership approach, it can provoke a willingness to want to change. I’ve administered hundreds of 360s over the years and find them quite powerful in terms of instigating positive leadership changes.

You write that leaders still need to be tough at times. How do I balance those needs? And how do I give harsh — and necessary — feedback in a way that’s productive rather than damaging?

Treasurer: One of a leader’s main jobs is to provide direction. That requires being direct. People need clarity about how well they are meeting the expectations of the leader and their own roles. When they’re missing the mark, the leader has to address it. But feedback has to be constructive, not destructive. The point isn’t to punish, it’s to correct and educate. A leader has to have a degree of behavioral versatility. Sometimes the leader needs to be blunt and direct. Sometimes the leader needs to add a measure of diplomacy. I call this being a “velvet hammer.” Some employees, hardheaded types for example, need more hammer from the leader. Others, sensitive types for example, need more velvet.

Much has been written about the rise of the gig economy (you mention Uber) and distributed work forces. How do those trends affect the leadership challenges you address in your book?

Treasurer: My sense is that the challenge with the gig economy is fostering a sense of loyalty among the folks who are gigging for your company. I often see drivers working for Uber and Lyft at the same time. You get the sense that neither company has done a great job of fostering loyalty. The challenge for leaders of gig workers is fostering loyalty when gig workers have choices. But that loyalty will be engendered by age-old leadership imperatives, like fair treatment, exemplary role modeling, clear expectations, a personal relationship, and expressions of gratitude.

Former GE head Jack Welch argued that not giving honest feedback to low performers qualifies as cruel. Would you agree with that, and is there a way to weed out poor performers in a way that fits your model?

Treasurer: Yes, I’d agree with that. I’d add that it’s cowardice on the part of the leader. Not addressing poor performance is wimpy leadership. Nobody wants to be led by a weakling. Providing honest and thoughtful feedback is a primary leadership responsibility. A leader who skirts around this isn’t fit to lead. My advice to such a leader would be grow a backbone, or leave the leading to others who are courageous enough to provide honest feedback to the people they’re privileged to lead.

I should add that receiving candid feedback is one of the surest ways of bringing about transformational change and performance improvement. I would invite your readers to think about tough and honest feedback they’ve received along the way. There’s a good chance that the hard-hitting feedback closed a blind spot and helped them grow personally or professionally. It may have stung in the short run, but it improved performance before long. Leaders can impact the trajectory of our careers or lives simply by fulfilling one of their primary duties — providing us with honest performance feedback.

You don’t mention Donald Trump in the book, but many of your descriptions of arrogant leaders seem to fit his style. Has the president made that brand of leadership fashionable again?

Treasurer: My coauthor and I were intentional about this omission. From a practical standpoint, had we included our thoughts and opinions about Trump, we would alienate half of our readers. Instead, we want to provide behavioral warning signs that an emerging leader could reference to identify whether or not he or she was moving toward arrogance. In some respect, focusing on Trump would have taken the onus off the reader for exploring their own selfish or arrogant tendencies. Finally, both of us are pretty sure Trump has gotten enough attention. He certainly could live without ours!

About Bill Treasurer

Bill Treasurer is the Chief Encouragement Officer (CEO) of Giant Leap Consulting, Inc. He is the author of international best-seller Courage Goes To Work, which introduced the new management practice of courage building and Leaders Open Doors, which became the #1 leadership training book on Amazon. All royalties from Leaders Open Doors are donated to programs that support kids with special needs.

Bill has designed leadership and succession programs for emerging and experienced leaders for NASA, Saks Fifth Avenue, UBS Bank, Walsh Construction, Spanx, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and many others.

Bill holds a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and a Bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University where he attended school on a full athletic scholarship. In addition to being an author & a business owner, Bill is a former U.S. High Diving Team captain , a cancer survivor, and the father of three children.

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