"I have a huge amount of energy that rarely
Chris, the CEO of her organization.
"So I get exasperated with people who are too cautious or who whine a lot. There are
some people in this organization with a Goody Two Shoes mentality, and I want to push on
that." Chris had had a very successful career, and her company was
doing well, so I asked her why she'd brought me in. "I'm tired of doing everything
myself," she replied. "I don't have enough faith in others to let them
take over, so I'd like for you to work with my team and help them develop more
"What about you?" I challenged. "They need to see
you're willing to go first. I hope you don't find that too threatening."
"There's very little fear in me," she countered. "But don't expect
to make me into something I'm not. I had enough of that as a kid!"
Mentally applauding, I encouraged her to say more. "I
set an explicit goal to treat my kids in a different way than I experienced, which was
being pounded with negative feedback and trying to make me something I was not. My mother
was like the mother in Ordinary People, constantly disappointed in me
– I was too heavy,
too loud, too aggressive."
In response to my questions about her
relationship with her children, Chris acknowledged that her husband's more laid-back style had
acted as a buffer when her parenting was a little too tough. "We
have a 'perfect' marriage," she cracked. "A man who can't say no and a
woman who won't take no for an answer."
My postulate that her husband might be an
often see this combination) was borne out when I asked about their social life. "I
plan all our vacations, our evenings out, and he sometimes acquiesces and then complains
about it because it's not what he really wanted to do. But he won't flip over and initiate
anything. When we're on vacation it's a hoot, because his idea of fun is water, sun, and a
book. Mine is a boat, SCUBA gear, a set of golf clubs, nine dinners out -- I'm a perpetual
"And you see some similar patterns at
work," I reflected.
"Yeah, I'm good at grabbing people and moving them
toward a vision," she said, "but I sometimes jump ahead too fast and
leave others behind who wanted to be involved. What really drives me nuts is when there's
a hot agenda item and people are wasting time. I'm pretty tenacious and sometimes I
can be obsessed with control. And when I get exasperated with people, I tend to say 'F----
it! I'm the CEO
– why can't I throw my weight around?'"
I was puzzling out a
response to that statement when she laughed, "That reminds me of a great story I
heard about the community organizer, Saul Alinsky, who wrote Rules for Radicals. He was
with a group of people eating breakfast where one woman had asked twice for some syrup for
her pancakes. Alinsky stood on his chair and shouted, 'Bring me the goddamned syrup!'
I like that."
"So, how's that style working with your
team?" I probed.
"I know some of them are intimidated," she
admitted. "I've certainly heard that often enough
– and when I really forget
myself I can be
verbally abusive, even mean. Also, though I have a good sense of humor, I'm
not sure when I'm going over the edge with it. sometimes it bites people. So I'm not
getting the most out of them I could."
"And what about you?"
I again challenged.
I was deeply touched by her answer: "I'd like to go deeper
into myself and find I'm not a monster."
Chris set up an appointment for me with the Chairman of the Board. "The Board
is very happy with Chris. When she talks, people listen," Hal
mused. "There's very little bluff to her -- she doesnt shoot any bull,"
he continued. "She never seems to have any hesitation about what to do. She's
outspoken, lets everybody know what she wants, and she usually gets it. It would take two
or three people to replace her." Hal also focused on the more personal side,
because he and Chris and their families had become friends: "Shes quite
lovable when you get to know her
she truly has a tender heart and her family and
friends are very important to her. She has a great respect for life, including animals.
Shes very moral, will even sacrifice popularity for principle. Its very simple
you dont compromise your values."
One of Chris' trusted supporters was her
administrative assistant, Anne, who said, "Chris starts out well in most
situations because shes smart and knowledgeable, but shes burned some bridges
behind her. If she finds somebody's been incompetent shell let them have it
with both barrels, and she doesnt care about their status. Shes made people
look like dopes who needed to be handled with kid gloves. Ive overheard her a couple
of times on the speakerphone when I thought she got into an 'attack and defend' mode." Anne
(a Nine, like Chris' husband) obviously felt supported by Chris, and wished
Chris had a more
balanced life: "She has huge intensity but she works too hard. Her stamina and
dedication go to unhealthy bounds. She expects from others what she expects from herself,
but what she expects is unreasonable."
I interviewed two of Chris' direct reports, based on her
observation that they represented different ends of the continuum in their
reactions to her. Charley (style
One) related well to her: "I expect her to tell me like it
is, but others arent so open. She may not have the best of manners. She certainly
isnt subtle; shes kind of brash and abrupt. But deep down I dont believe
wed have achieved the outcomes we have without an offensive posture. Its not
an unknown business strategy that some people get to wear the black hat." When I
asked Charley if Chris treated him the same as she did the others, he said,
"She trusts me and I rarely feel over-controlled. She’s forceful, and we’ve
parried a bit, but that doesn’t bother me because she has a great concern for
doing what’s right and I would expect her to speak up. She won’t back off, so if
you think you’re right you’ve got to hold your ground with her. I consider that a
strength, but many people are intimidated by her and have trouble standing up to her
demanding approach. A couple of my colleagues find her extremely controlling. If she
disagrees with something, she says so immediately, and overall this comes off as gruff and
When asked what he'd recommend for Chris,
Charley said, "She needs to improve her listening skills, and to not have to be so
much in control. She needs more flexibility in dealing with different people
on the team. She could show more tact and diplomacy, back off a little bit, occasionally
bite her tongue. For example, not embarrassing someone in a large meeting."
At the other end of the spectrum was Jerry (style
my dealings with Chris," he said, "as long as she's getting her way and
others subordinate their independence, everything is fine, but if someone offers a
different perspective it becomes a confrontation. Things I see as taking initiative,
she sees as disrespectful of her authority."
I asked Jerry if Chris had done a
good job as CEO.
"She's accomplished a lot for the company," he
acknowledged. "The only question in my mind is
whether the same results could have been accomplished with a different approach. I think
she sees the world as an adversarial place. One way this shows up is her
tendency to assume someone has screwed up. And she can really blow people away.
example, if someone doesnt answer her phone call right away. She conveys that
youre incompetent or that youre a lightweight. Shes opinionated and
overbearing. You can see this in her approach to solving problems. She questions you
unmercifully until she finds a weakness and then she exploits it. As much as I like her, I
dig in my heels when she does that, as if I were one of her kids!"
Picking up on Jerry's comment that he liked Chris, I
asked him to say more about her positive traits.
"There are a lot of things about
Chris I find inspiring. She has a tremendous capacity to love and care for the
underdog. She has a kind of naïve optimism: what you see is what you get. When shes
at her best she exudes a quality of fearlessness, calmness, gentleness, positiveness. She
will do anything for you. But she absolutely doesnt know how to get inside other
peoples framework. She doesnt seem to know that people adapt by incorporating
things into their own way of thinking. She just wants them to 'do it!'"
The night before my feedback session
with Chris I cut out a set of paper teeth and sewed them onto a small teddy bear (to this
day she keeps her "Teddy Bear with Teeth" sitting on her office shelf where she
can see it from her desk). I framed her feedback in terms of the obligations of "Charismatic Leadership," summarizing articles for
her where the emphasis was twofold:
Charismatic leaders evoke the same kind of "transference"
that therapists do. Employees' motivations and reactions, therefore, will derive in part
from the leader's symbolic status (as "parent"). This unconscious dynamic
explains both the leader's power (which can easily be abused) and the resistance of
followers to that power.
Among the most important characteristics of ethical charismatic
leaders are the abilities to develop creative, critical thinking in their followers and to
stimulate followers to think independently and to question the leader's view.
Chris is a very smart woman and the paradox was not lost on her: for her
subordinates to be strong, she had to make herself vulnerable enough to solicit and learn
from their criticisms of her style and her point of view. To help her develop more
flexible and collaborative negotiating skills, we rehearsed with Fisher and Ury's "Getting to Yes" audiotapes (we got a good laugh at the subtitle:
"How to Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In").
A year later,
during a follow-up call, Chris asked me to create a workshop for her and her team using Tom
Ethical Persuasion. It's worth noting that the transformational goal for Eights is to become
compassionate and just. It wasn't a coincidence that Chris was attracted to Rusk's
book and its method: "This approach persuades us to treat each other with respect,
understanding, caring, and fairness."
Conger and Kanungo's
Charismatic Leadership: The Elusive Factor in Organizational