Solving the Authenticity Puzzle: What Many CEOs Cannot Do

July 5, 2013

By: Robert E. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

I met a consultant from another part of the world who works with senior business leaders. In their country’s culture, he said, there is an extreme emphasis on hierarchy and seniority, with strong norms to defer to. Because of that, someone such as a CEO may get little honest feedback, and a CEO’s blind spots may become a growing problem in the organization.

On one assignment, my acquaintance spent a very long period preparing a CEO’s direct reports to share key truths with him. He taught them that they needed to be simultaneously respectful and honest. The direct reports were fearful but willing to try. A two-and-a-half-hour meeting was scheduled. For the first hour and a half, the CEO was uncomfortable, and so were the direct reports.

The man who was telling me the story described his own anxiety. In his country, a man as powerful as the CEO could destroy a consultant’s career. Performing this sort of “intervention” was a great risk.

Thankfully in the last half-hour there was a major change. The CEO began to see the value in what was taking place, and he opened up. The meeting became a positive intervention that led to a lasting change in the communication patterns of the top management team.

From Fear to High Performance

This type of problem is not limited to organizations in countries where extreme deference to leadership is expected. In fact, it occurs in most organizations. Armies of professionals live in fear of speaking truth to power.

Yet not all CEOs expect or desire kowtowing. In fact, a retired CEO recently told me, “I really valued the ones who would tell me the truth. It saved me so much time in terms of figuring out what was really happening.”

That sentence captures a key point. Leaders appreciate getting accurate information from their reports; but it’s not common for those reports to provide it. As economics would suggest, we assume people will pursue their own self-interests before they will pursue the common good. We do not expect authentic communication in organizations, we expect political posturing.

One characteristic of a high-performing organization is that the common good is valued, and authentic communication is placed ahead of ego, particularly the ego of the central authority figure. When conversation is authentic, the rate of collective learning accelerates and the probability of organizational adaptation and success increases. Seldom do we see this positive condition, however.

Transforming normal assumptions is a leadership challenge. Effective leaders put authenticity ahead of their egos, and they create a culture in which the acceptance of positive confrontation is the norm. Their direct reports act like leaders, not subordinates. They lead from where they are. Unfortunately transformational leaders are rare.

What CEOs Cannot Do

What is interesting is that in most organizations, the CEO is not able to change the culture practice of informational filtering. They lack the skill. A capable person from the outside is needed to lead the company long enough to facilitate the change. The required outside leader must be more than merely a skilled consultant. The person must also have a level of integrity that is not common.

Note the amount of risk my associate felt like he had to take to do what the senior leaders needed. To transform (rather than merely quell) the fears of the direct reports and the CEO, the outsider had to have more than change skills. The outsider had to bring the virtue of courage; indeed, he had to risk his own career, given that in his culture, the CEO could have caused difficulty in response to his challenge.

Why would an outsider risk his career to help the organization? Many consultants are more than willing to go through the motions, making normal contributions and collecting normal paychecks—but not if there is great personal risk involved.

The only answer I know is integrity—in this case, a commitment to a higher purpose. The outsider could lead the company through this change because he was committed to raising people to a higher purpose. He was willing to put the common good ahead of his own good. I often refer to this as “caring enough to die for the company that would kill you for caring.”

In short, this man provided real leadership not because that’s what he does, but because that is who he is. He transformed the implicit conflict into creative cooperation, and the collective began to adapt and perform at a higher level.

In turn, the CEO learned an important lesson: He learned how to lead. He learned that he had to put the common good ahead of his own ego. His direct reports learned the same.