Jayashantha Jayawardhana urges leaders to avoid the traps that they commonly fall into

2016 (138-262)I was in Grade 4, when I first heard the Sinhala version of the English proverb ‘pride goes before a fall.’ Even if I knew it by rote (our teacher laid great emphasis on learning such figures of speech), I didn’t quite understand it… until I reached adolescence, and experienced it myself! I’m no genius; but admittedly, I’ve committed some stunning acts of folly, out of pride and ignorance.

No doubt, pride does precede a fall.

It is easy to be smug, when you’ve reached the top, following years of hard work. You are enjoying the perks and privileges that come with your position. It’s when you believe that you’re invincible, and your judgment is infallible, that you begin to trade humility for arrogance, and modesty for extravagance.

The moment you forget your roots and lose the common touch, your fall from grace begins. It’s only a matter of time, thereafter, before you hit the hard ground of reality.

Incidentally, only the ambitious and action-oriented individuals are willing to take considerable risks to climb the corporate ladder. This is because those who favour reflection over action, and act with caution, may build good careers; but they may receive scant attention from the leadership, as being viable successors.

According to experimental social psychologist Dr. Roderick M. Kramer and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business William R. Kimball (co-authors of the article The Harder They Fall), the pursuit of power often changes people in profound ways. This is at the heart of the genius-to-folly syndrome.

The television movie The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron highlights a classic case of the genius-to-folly syndrome. Founded by Kenneth Lay in 1985, Enron was one of the world’s major electricity, natural gas, communications, and pulp and paper companies. It employed some 20,000 people, before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, on 2 December 2001. From 1996 to 2001 (that’s six years in a row), Enron had been adjudged ‘America’s Most Innovative Company,’ by no less than Fortune.

However, the scandal broke, and the great American corporate success story turned out to be a massive institutionalised accounting fraud. Chairman Lay and senior executives, including CEO Jeffrey Skilling and CFO Andrew Fastow, suffered a spectacular fall from grace, as it transpired that they had cooked the books and inflated earnings to mislead investors. They were prosecuted and convicted on many counts of fraud. The scandal also led to the de facto dissolution of Enron’s auditors Arthur Andersen, one of the world’s top five audit firms at the time.

Why did these remarkably smart individuals resort to cooking the books, knowing it was a crime?

Often, at the top, some leaders are under the illusion that rules do not apply to them; and that with their wealth and political clout, they can get away with murder. Add to this the irrational belief that ‘the winner wants it all,’ and you have a foolproof recipe for self-destruction.

Thus, instead of facing facts, breaking bad news to investors and turning their business around, Enron’s leadership team sought to dissemble the truth, and make the company live up to its false image.

But there’s no way you can live a lie forever.

Another important fact is that some leaders resort to painful trade-offs – such as abandoning their families – to gain power and build their careers. The perks and privileges at the top become their sole means of compensating themselves for the price they have paid to achieve success. They forget that greater responsibility always accompanies greater power.

Moreover, when you’re at the helm, people who are closest to you rarely dare challenge or correct you, or point out your mistakes. The reason is simple: they don’t want to tell the emperor that he has no clothes on, lest they should be perceived as disloyal sceptics. It is much easier for them to turn a blind eye. This is another major reason for accelerating that fall from grace.

So how do you survive at the top?

A few simple psychological and behavioural habits will keep you grounded. Keep your life simple. It pays to remain awfully ordinary… like Warren Buffett, who has lived in the same house for over 40 years. Use humour to highlight your foibles. Show your followers that you are as human as they are.

Check and recheck the feedback you receive. Surround yourself with people who are loyal, but not afraid to point out your mistakes. Sweat the small stuff. Remember that, sometimes, it takes only a single misstep to slide from the fast track to derailment. Reflect more, not less. You should learn to read yourself as effectively as you read other people.

At the top, modesty, self-restraint and a sense of proportion aren’t optional.