Keep Your Big Head in Check

Too many leaders let power go to their heads. A social psychologist explains how to keep your feet on the ground in this excerpt from Harvard Business Review.

by Roderick Kramer Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

The past decade may well be remembered as the era of the bold, high-flying, "sky’s the limit" leader. Throughout the 1990s, our society seemed to have a fetish for aggressive chiefs like Enron’s Kenneth Lay, Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, and WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers. These corner-office titans graced the covers of business magazines, and the public seemed fascinated with their willingness to flaunt the rules and break from the corporate herd with incredible daring and flair. But like Icarus, they flew too high. Scandal set in, and these once feted and envied leaders found themselves falling hard and fast. Other admired leaders—not just in business but also in politics, religion, and the media—are finding themselves in a similar free fall. One moment they are masters of their domain. The next they are on the pavement looking up, wondering where it all went wrong.

At first glance, the Lays, Kozlowskis, and Ebberses of the world are unlikely candidates for such swift and ignoble falls. In their brilliant and rapid ascents, "star" leaders repeatedly demonstrate the intelligence, resourcefulness, and drive to go the distance. They prove adept at overcoming whatever obstacles they encounter along the way. And they display a dazzling ability to woo investors, enchant employees, and charm the media with their charisma, grandiose visions, and seemingly unlimited strategic acumen. Yet just when they appear to have it all, these A-list performers demonstrate uncharacteristic lapses in professional judgment or personal conduct.


If high-flying leaders hope to stay on top, they would do well to nurture their humility.


Why do so many individuals seem to fall prey to stunning bouts of folly once they seize power? Attributing it to personal failings or lack of moral fiber seems too glib—after all, wouldn’t the flaws have emerged earlier in the leaders’ careers? As a psychologist and consultant to many businesses, I’ve spent most of my career researching the process of getting to the top. I’ve found that there is something about the pursuit of power that often changes people in profound ways. Indeed, to get to the apex of their profession, individuals are often forced to jettison certain attitudes and behaviors—the same attitudes and behaviors they need for survival once they get to the top. During the high-tech boom, we saw risk-taking and rule-breaking as markers of good leadership. As a result, we often ended up with leaders who lacked the prudence, sense of proportion, and self-restraint needed to cope with the trappings of power. …

How to have it all

A lauded leader can indeed succumb to recklessness once power has been achieved. But not all executives lose their footing. The behaviors and values of the leaders I interviewed who got to the top and managed to stay there are quite similar. They had different personalities and management styles, but they all seemed to retain a remarkable sense of proportion and displayed a high degree of self-awareness. When I asked them how they had been able to remain effective for so long, I learned that each had developed a certain combination of psychological and behavioral habits that helped them stay grounded.

Keep your life simple. "It helps to remain awfully ordinary," one CEO told me. A Hollywood executive I spoke with said, "I love this industry, but if you get caught up in the glamour and celebrity, it’s easy to lose touch with reality. I just don’t do the star parties or the private screenings or the power breakfasts any more than I absolutely have to. I love the Oscars—but I watch [the show] every year from my couch, surrounded by my kids and a few friends, just like everyone else." Such normal behavior may seem lackluster, but it helps leaders stay in touch with themselves and with other ordinary people, including their customers and employees. Indeed, if high-flying leaders hope to stay on top, they would do well to nurture their humility. It helps people view their accomplishments, and their foibles, with detachment. It also helps people to see adversity through a healthy lens. The best way of developing humility is to remind ourselves of what really matters in life. Take it from Warren Buffett. When asked how he learned to handle his enormous power and wealth, he said, "I live now the way I lived thirty years ago."

Hang a lantern on your foibles. Few leaders manage to reach the top and remain there very long without suffering from some occasional blunders. We all have shortcomings, and they always interfere to some extent. The natural tendency with flaws and imperfections is to deny them or cover them up. But what we really need to do is to shine a light on our weaknesses to understand them better. What’s more, acknowledging our shortcomings or mistakes helps to prevent others from punishing us too much for those failures. After the Bay of Pigs, for example, President Kennedy accepted full responsibility for the disastrous operation, and his popularity soared higher than ever. Kennedy was also famous for using humor to shine a light on his flaws. Responding to charges that his father was using personal funds to help his son win the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy quipped, "I just received the following wire from my generous daddy: ‘Dear Jack, don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’"


Humor is an especially effective tool for acknowledging our flaws because it communicates vulnerability while, at the same time, indicates we are in control.


Float trial balloons.

All the leaders I’ve studied who have thrived in power engage in a great deal of reality testing. They check and recheck the information they receive, they review their assumptions about that information, and they do it often. One executive I interviewed, who owns her own marketing firm, said whenever she has doubts about the feedback she is getting from her advisers, she takes employees aside and floats some really wild ideas by them to see how they react. "I’d much rather learn [the truth] this way, when the stakes are low, than in some moment of crisis," she explained. Floating trial balloons helps leaders uncover the truth and prepares them for the unexpected—especially when mindful scrutinization of the business environment becomes a natural part of a leader’s routine. One CFO at a large company noted, "We try to do a full sweep with our radar on a regular basis. I don’t see how you can do your job as a leader responsibly in today’s business environment without worrying about everything."


All the leaders I’ve studied who have thrived in power engage in a great deal of reality testing.


Sweat the small stuff. Some self-help books exhort people not to sweat the small stuff, and in many arenas of life, that’s sound advice. But when it comes to running a film studio, a country, or a company, leaders do need to sweat the small stuff. They need to worry about what might be ahead so they can anticipate what might go wrong. In business particularly, sweating the small stuff is important because leaders often stumble on the little things. Indeed, sometimes it’s only a small misstep that takes you from the fast track to total derailment. Perhaps the most famous practitioner of "sweating the small stuff" is former Intel CEO Andrew Grove, who explained it this way: "I believe in the value of paranoia. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper and displacing us with our customers."

Reflect more, not less. Successful leaders strive to become more reflective. That’s paradoxical given that today’s business culture celebrates action over hesitancy. Americans in particular admire leaders who break new ground, transform industries, and smash glass ceilings. Given this overemphasis on doing, perhaps it’s not surprising that many of the fallen leaders I studied appeared to have a strikingly impoverished sense of self. Though they often know how to read others brilliantly, they remain curiously oblivious to many of their own tendencies that expose them to risk. When Bill Clinton was interrogated about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, for example, he made the startling disclosure that he assumed all along that Monica would tell some of her friends about what was going on. Perhaps he should have spent a little more time reflecting about which friends—and with what consequences.

Excerpted with permission from "The Harder They Fall," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 81, No. 10, October 2003.

Roderick M. Kramer is a social psychologist and the William R. Kimball Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in California.

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