March 23, 2022

Why Strong Leaders Can Make Very Bad—and Even Deadly—Decisions

NCEO founder and senior staff member

One of the great paradoxes of leadership is that the very qualities that might make someone likely to become a leader of a company—or a nation—can be the very same qualities that can lead to some very bad decisions. Rising to the top usually takes a lot of self-confidence and the ability to make good decisions about a lot of things quickly. But that same self-confidence can turn to arrogance, an arrogance that may discourage those working with you to challenge your assumptions, ideas, and even what you perceive as facts. 

Of course, we are seeing that play out in tragic ways right now in Ukraine. By nearly all accounts, the decision to invade Ukraine will be extraordinarily costly for Russia as well as Ukraine. In fact, few wars of choice, much less occupations of hostile countries, have been anything other than disasters. Yet they happen over and over. Vladimir Putin, like most other leaders who have made these tragic choices, is surrounded by people who agree with him, who confirm his own sense of making the right decisions.

Disagreeing with leaders like this can be a career-ending choice—or life-ending. The result is that decisions are poorly informed and never challenged.

Leading a company doesn’t have the same life-changing consequences, of course, but the issues are the same, if on a smaller scale. Lots of CEOs rise to the top convinced of the merits of their own judgment. It’s natural to want to please those who have power over your future, so even if someone disagrees, the disagreement is likely to be couched in very careful terms that may not convey the depth of disagreement. The result is that information reaching the CEO, or any other leader, tends to be confirming or, at least, not very challenging. 

There is another kind of strength, however, and great leaders share it. These leaders know that they do not always have the best ideas or information and they seek out other opinions, even in Doris Goodwin’s phrase about Lincoln, “a team of rivals.” They make people around them feel safe when they disagree. Their egos are not tied up in always being right. They have the self-confidence to make hard decisions, but also the wisdom to do a post-mortem when they don’t work out. We see this kind of leadership a lot in great ESOP companies, and it goes a long way toward explaining why they perform better. Would that national leaders take heed.