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“Check your ego at the front door,” is a phrase popular with some executive coaches and self-help gurus.  The underlying theme, at least in business, for this frequently used platitude is that leadership is not about the leader, but the success of the organization and the employees who make it happen.

Moment of truth

“Moments of truth” is another phrase that is often used.

Together these two provide an insightful theme when discussing leadership transition—the arrival of a new Chief Executive Officer—since the transition period is fraught with risks. 

One of the biggest challenges for a new CEO is to master the cultural DNA of a new organization.  Even if a overhaul or transformation is warranted, the new CEO has to start with the culture he or she inherited. Failure to understand it will lead to turmoil, angst and lost opportunity. 

The best place to begin is with a lot of listening.  Identify the problems, understand why they exist—cultural dysfunction, poorly designed processes, or both—and establish a positive plan to make the change.  You have to start with the people who are there. 

Some CEOs wrongly believe that their sheer force of personality and confidence will allow them to muscle through any morass.  Yelling at and berating your most important asset—your colleagues in the executive suite and the employees who are, for better or worse, the heart and soul of the organization—is no substitute for understanding what makes an organization tick, and what causes breakdowns in performance.  The yellers and screamers may improve performance on the margin, but their organizations will never achieve and sustain best-in-class status. 

A leader’s reputation, like the hundreds of habits—good and bad—that shape an organization’s DNA, is not based on the big issues, but those moments of truth when things go horribly wrong and how they respond in front of their team.

In healthcare, there are a host of leadership experts who would argue that the yeller and screamer leaders have, over time, produced inferior quality of care, patient safety and satisfaction scores, when compared to the CEOs who set rigorous performance standards, empower their employees and nurture an atmosphere that is energized with hope and trust.  Everyone gets angry from time to time, but the great leaders tend to vent their frustrations behind closed doors.  

Governing boards which tolerate the yelling and berating leadership style are just as responsible for the poor performance—and quality—as their misguided CEOs. 

© 2012 John Gregory Self