Too many assumptions are made about leaders once they reach the highest levels of their organization: that they are at the top of their game, operating out professional clarity, and have themselves figured out.
Ivy league educated, storied-career David Petraeus is a poignant illustration.
As director of the CIA, and one of the most acclaimed and highest ranking generals, he seemed among the least likely to derail his career in an ethics scandal. He resigned last week (11/9/12) when an affair, allegedly with his biographer Paula Broadwell, became public.
Beyond issues of national security — which Petraeus said he didn’t violate — the critical question here is a very human one. It gets to the heart of leadership.
How do high achievers driven to achieve, fueled by the desire to have the achievement matter, consistently stay committed to their values and highest aspirations for themselves as a human being?
Reflecting on it, they have a better sense of how to unite the pieces of their lives into a wholeness, an integrated self. They can notice more consciously the interplay of their ego and how it may be at loggerheads with their values, or what they say they stand for. It is more possible for them to detect red flags about what is going on within them and around them. It is the essence of being self aware.
Nearly 20 years ago, Daniel Goleman’s “What Makes a Leader” identified emotional intelligence (self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills) as a critical dimension of leadership that one can continually learn and develop.
Leaders’ vulnerability to ethical lapses, mistakes in judgment, and a sense of entitlement increase when self awareness and self regulation are low, or there is complacency about one’s own ethical development.
Consider very recent exits for CEOs who’ve lied on resumes (Scott Thompson at Yahoo), had “inappropriate relationships with subordinates,” (Christopher Kubasick at Lockheed Martin and Brian Dunn at Best Buy ), or committed “serious financial violations” (Ernst Lieb at Mercedes-Benz USA).
When caught in an ethical lapse, responses like “I regret my conduct in this matter did not meet the standards to which I have always held myself” reflect the language of detachment from self-awareness. On one side — the standards I say I hold myself to; on the other side — how I behave.
Values that become passive do us no good.
In his new book The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward, leadership development expert Kevin Cashman writes about the importance of a leader’s ongoing focus on self-knowledge and how to expand self-awareness. I interviewed him recently about ways leaders can mitigate vulnerability to ethical lapses.
Leaders reach their career pinnacle for many reasons, often because of their track record, business acumen, strategic ability, and ability to influence and get others to follow.
As mistakes are all too human, what is a safety net?
At the heart of leadership is what sustains leadership.
It is the questions we ask ourselves as we deepen self-awareness that provide answers to how we stay aligned with the values and purpose that express who we are. It a creates the foundation for a leadership that is conscious, authentic, and ethical.
Gael O’Brien November 16, 2012
Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her November 2012 column is “When CEOs Self-Destruct: Lessons in Values for Corporate Boards.