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Where leadership goes to die: Fear and (self-loathing) in the C-suite

Where leadership goes to die: Fear and (self-loathing) in the C-suite

by Moyra Mackie on April 8, 2016

Senior executives have never been so well rewarded.  In the UK it now takes the average CEO only three days to “earn” what the average employee takes home in a year.  On top of this, lottery-sized exit packages and gold-plated pensions give those at the top unprecedented material security.

And yet… Not everything feels secure

According to The Economist, the average life expectancy of public companies shrank from 65 years in the 1920s, to less than ten in the 1990s. Public scrutiny is increasing and innovation is a source of both creativity and disruption. Whilst a golden parachute might break the fall, life in the C-suite is becoming ever more precarious. In just ten years the average CEO tenure has fallen from 8.1 to 6.3 years and is getting shorter all the time.

In an uncertain climate, good leadership matters more than ever

McKinsey has published numerous papers linking organisational health with profitability, innovation and shareholder return.  So every year the spend on leadership and management development training and change and culture consultancy increases.

And yet…  Lack of good leadership is costly

Dissatisfaction with the results of all this training and development is on the rise.  Employee engagement numbers remain stubbornly low and, depending on the survey you read, between 50 and 60% of staff would fire their managers if they could. According to Deloitte Shift Index American companies are 75% LESS productive than in 1965.

What should leadership achieve?

Erik de Haan in his book The Leadership Shadow summarises decades of research:

“Leadership is the function devoted to harnessing the organisation’s effectiveness”

This speaks to the fact that everyone in an organisation has a leadership role in order to harness that effectiveness.

However, many studies point to the crucial role of senior management teams:

“The prize for building effective top teams is clear: they develop better strategies, perform more consistently, and increase the confidence of stakeholders.  They get positive results and make the work itself  a more positive experience both for the team’s members and for the people they lead”   – McKinsey,  “Teamwork at the Top”


McKinsey surveyed 189,000 people in 81 companies across geographies and industries.  When it came to sustainable profits and engaged employees, four kinds of behaviour account for 89 percent of leadership effectiveness:

  • Being supportive
  • Solving problems effectively
  • Operating with a strong results orientation
  • Seeking different perspectives

This survey – and others – points to the key role upwards feedback plays in this process.

The real cost of leadership failure

A 2013 survey of over 3000 people revealed :

almost a quarter (22%) of workers left their job due to a lack of faith in leadership, 19% felt unappreciated, 19% felt disengaged & unmotivated and 13% cited lack of financial rewards as their reason for leaving…. Employees still rate having good management and a rewarding workload as the most important things in their daily working lives, with 41% leaving their job as a result of having a lack of faith in bosses or feeling unappreciated by them.

So where did all the good leaders go?

Top teams are usually full of knowledgeable, experienced, ambitious (and yes, well-rewarded) people, what’s getting in the way?

Profitability is closely linked to how well senior management teams work together.  Working well together means having open and often challenging conversations; a lack of silo thinking when it comes to strategy and the ability to take responsibility for modelling and executing change. At a nitty-gritty level this means a lack of hidden agendas in meetings, emails and phone calls.

The obstacle is not “out there” stuff like strategy or vision

Research (and our own hard-won experience) shows that it’s not lack of strategic awareness, but the people themselves that inhibit great performance.

Interviews with hundreds of senior executives have shown – perhaps surprisingly – it all comes down to fear.

The top five leadership fears

The top five leadership fears

The executives themselves easily identify the consequences which include poor decision making, a focus on survival instead of growth, failing to act unless there is a crisis and encouraging bad behaviour at the next level down.

The good news is that while fear is an inevitable part of being human there are some simple steps that can break the cycle and reinvigorate the organisation.

Fearful leaders don’t need training or an expensive MBA, they need quality time to think

The most important step is allowing the senior team time to think and time to talk to each other.  Really, properly talk to each other.

The people in our lives who we trust the most, have usually seen us as at our best and at our worst and they care about us anyway.  Trust requires openness and vulnerability.

Getting to leadership requires courage

This first step is not easy, which is why teams look to outside help.  But just try Googling “Executive Leadership Development”.  Up will come a set of results from leading business schools, some of which will include essential one-to-one coaching.  But most of the curriculum is still about best-practice, strategy and skill sets.

Very little of it addresses the tricky topic of fear.

So isn’t it time for some fresh thinking on leadership development?

Performance equals potential minus distraction | leadership fears

Shouldn’t programs focus on the executives themselves, identifying and then working through the distractions?  Shouldn’t programs take leaders and teams away from it all, give them time to think and allow them to come up with the fresh ideas and let them start making their own brave decisions?

Employees have the right to be well led

The presence of high quality two-way feedback is the sign of an organisation that is listening and learning.  We have a way of measuring that.  It doesn’t involve carrots or sticks or nine box grids.  But it does require courage from those in the C-suite.

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Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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