Why Good Leaders Go Bad

Have you ever wondered how some executives actually got to their level of success? I know I have run into a few that I felt probably needed help tying their own shoes. While you will certainly find managers who shouldn’t be in a management position, there are managers who were great at times but have changed in ways that have made them less effective. In this post, I’d like to identify a few things that high achievers need to be aware of to avoid going from great to bad. These situations are very important for you to recognize now as they are silent killers of performance that most people never see coming.

Impostor Syndrome. This is a situation where a high achiever moves away from serving their talents to serving their fears. Maybe it’s a fear of failure, fear of success, procrastination, workaholism, or perfectionism. This fear creates an enormous amount of anxiety which triggers the transition. For high achievers, success often comes rapidly. Sometimes it occurs too rapidly. If the rate of success is too quick, then the conscious mind won’t be able to analyze past performance to rationalize why the success has occurred. They simply have no memories of how they earned their way up. There is also another problem. As they develop the higher level skills to manage organizations, they lose their more detail technical skills. Technical memory is reduced and they recognize that. This is where the anxiety comes into play. The brain, amygdala in this case, activates the anxiety out of an inability to remember what made you successful or how the technical things work. This is a disruption to the thought process, leaving the leader with a constant focus on their fear. Is it a little embarrassing that a leader of a technical organization doesn’t even know how their own products work? Sure it is. Highly stressed high achievers are aware of the stress but not their brains handling of it. At certain levels of stress, the brain only runs on the unconscious mind, shutting down the conscious mind’s activities. As Srinivasan Pillay, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says “It is like a figure skater who suddenly questions his or her flow on the ice and starts to stumble, or a musician who loses the spontaneity and starts to play mechanically.”

Mirrored-self misidentification. This is a fairly common in highly successful leaders. It’s a situation where, after being submerged in a problem for a long period of time, they don’t recognize themselves anymore. In extreme cases, affected persons are unable to recognize their image in the mirror. While it may look like them, they don’t really think it is. On a more subtle level, executives can get wrapped up in complex problems for too long. Even if they are successful, they won’t recognize the success, no matter how much they are praised for it. Their behavior begins to show narcissistic tendencies in that they begin to worry that others will see them differently. They may want to represent a certain set of social values when they really don’t. For example, when John Edwards, a 2008 U.S. Democratic presidential contender and former South Carolina Senator, was interviewed about his adulterous affair, he admitted that narcissism played a role in his unethical behavior. In short, great success can easily confuse a leader and convince them that any unethical behavior isn’t really unethical. The “mirroring” problem is a form of self-deception, the paradoxical capacity to deceive oneself regarding the truth in the process of protecting self-image.

Summit Syndrome. Sometimes great leaders move upwards at a neck breaking pace and then, come to a halt. They suddenly become “stuck.” A leader who has mastered their position and accomplishes their tasks with ease can become bored. They may push to achieve some unheard of stellar result, only to crash and burn. Eventually, they retire, move on or fall back down the ladder. The problem is that many of these high achievers are high sensation seekers and monotony deprives them of novelty. The brain can respond by reducing cross talk between hemispheres of the brain. This leads to neural atrophy and eventually a decline in performance. Essentially, it’s a situation where a thrill seeker is placed in a position of a complete lack of excitement. It’s not a fun place and their behavior will eventually communicate that.

So there you have it. These are just a few things that can make a good executive go bad. If you watch the news any, you can certainly find evidence to support my claims. The problem with these situations is that they are often unnoticed and untreated, until the executives sink the ship. Hopefully, you can consider these in your own career development. Coaching is one of the best ways to get yourself out of such compromising positions, but this requires you to recognize some of the signs and seek support.   This is a great reason for you to establish a good network of professionals to support your career development. You’ll need people who will consistently be open and honest about your performance.

Cheap plug coming….Stay tuned for our next ebook on mentoring. Even great success can bring your career to a halt. A mentoring team can help you build great success and they can also help you keep it!

Leave a Reply