How CEO Disease Can Cripple Your Company


Imagine you’re a pilot. You’re flying at 37,000 feet in the air when you hit some turbulence. You look at your flight instruments, but instead of giving you exact readings you can use to fly to safety, you see flashing indicators that read, “No really, you’re doing fine” or “The numbers are great—trust us!”

Or let’s say you’re a surgeon. You’re in the middle of performing an appendectomy, but there’s no monitoring equipment to display the patient’s pulse rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and so on. Instead, the surgical team simply tells you what a great job you’re doing, how much they love working with you, and how grateful the patient will be.

Sure, these scenarios are ridiculous. If you’re operating within one of them, you suffer from what’s called “CEO Disease.” While the exact definition can vary, this malady tends to involve a debilitating level of self-aggrandizement on the part of the CEO (that’s you), as well as a certain obliviousness to how their actions and mood impact the rest of the organization. Worst of all, it creates a dangerous disconnect around what’s really going on inside your company.

At its heart, CEO Disease is a perception problem—your employees are unwilling or unable to share how they really perceive you and your business, so your perception of the business is skewed. Instead of receiving accurate information from your departments and teams, you get vague, reassuring, and often-useless platitudes. That may be because you’ve shot the messenger one too many times, or you have an intimidating or off-putting personality, or you’re so involved in your own work that you rarely engage with employees. Regardless, CEO Disease doesn’t affect just you—it shapes the very culture of your organization.

CEO Disease is best tackled head-on by the CEO him- or herself. Problem is, many leaders don’t realize they have this particular ailment until it’s too late. If you’d like to make sure CEO Disease doesn’t harm your company’s health, I recommend you take a page from Ronald Reagan’s book.

President Reagan understood that, as head of the Executive Branch, he was in great danger of catching the presidential version of CEO Disease. He was an inclusive leader who used his much-admired emotional intelligence to forge honest, open relationships. As a result, he could rely on his advisors and allies—and in many instances, even his opposition—to tell him the full truth, when he needed to hear it, so that he could make the best decisions for his country.

Here are the seven symptoms of CEO Disease that leaders can use to make a self-diagnosis:

1. You either hear really good things from your people…or nothing at all.

What would you say if someone asked you, “What do your employees think about you as a boss?” You might be suffering from CEO Disease if your answer is, “I get only good reviews,” or “I haven’t heard anything from them lately—and no news is good news, right?”

Great leaders actively seek out honest feedback about themselves from their own people and other leaders. They ask questions like, “How can I improve as this team’s leader?”, “What more can I be doing to help the organization succeed?”, and “Are any of my habits holding us back?”

Realize that usually you’ll have to be the one to initiate this discussion. It’s true that your people might freely offer praise (whether or not they mean it!), but you’ll have to give them permission to offer suggestions on how you can improve, or to share inconvenient truths. Like Reagan, you need to understand that encouraging candid speech is the best way to identify small problems with your leadership before they evolve into big ones.

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