Is Your CEO A Lone Ranger?

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A CEO's desire for total control can slow down processes and critical decision-making, depress morale and cause investors to lose confidence.

Lone Ranger CEOs prefer working autonomously rather than collaborating as part of a team. They frequently assume multiple roles within their organizations and make decisions without much consultation with colleagues. They prefer leading via one-on-one interaction with direct reports to address and resolve important issues and challenges rather than engaging their team of direct reports in an integrated fashion. While their intentions are often good and they genuinely believe they are acting in the best interest of their organizations, they may be unaware of the negative consequences their approach can have. Despite a desire to build strong leadership teams, they usually fail to realize the adverse impact they exert both on their teams and the organization.

Motivations of a Lone Ranger CEO

Lone Ranger CEOs are generally driven be several underlying beliefs. First, they possess a strong desire to control, coupled with a strong confidence (sometimes overconfidence) in their own abilities. This often arises from past negative experiences with collaboration, or from a conviction that their judgement is superior. Second, they tend to view deliberation and debate as obstacles that unnecessarily slow down process and decision-making. They worry that involving others may lead to compromises that dilute their vision for the organization. Lastly, they often believe that their vision requires specialized knowledge and expertise and are convinced that they are the only ones equipped to understand the complexities involved.

Below are several quotes pulled directly from the mouths of CEOs…

“I have been a CEO before, so I know what it takes to be successful.”

“I need to be the CTO because I am the only one with the product vision.”

“I don’t have time to debate why we need to build an offshore practice.”

“It’s my job to manage the board; they just don’t understand our business.”

“I don’t like canceling meetings, missing commitments, or being late but my time is spread very thin.”

“I can talk to any employee I want to as we need to be agile and move quickly.”

CEOs Need a Senior Team

Today’s business world is increasingly complex and fast-paced, requiring a diverse set of skills, experience, and perspectives to effectively lead an organization. While an individual CEO may be exceptionally talented, it is impossible that they possess all the competencies and agility needed to address the challenges their organization’s face. Simply put, CEOs require a team of talented leaders to help them effectively manage their organizations.

While CEOs may have a compelling vision, unique experience and skills, and the ability to execute tasks independently, adopting a Lone Ranger approach is fraught with risks. Strategically, the absence of diverse input can lead to missed opportunities and decisions may fall short due to the limitations of a single individual’s knowledge and intuition. Operationally, a CEO’s desire for control can slow down processes and decision making, as managers and staff are left waiting for directives. Morale suffers as managers and staff become frustrated with lack of empowerment and poor communication from the top. Ultimately, this can lead to a loss of confidence from the board, who may attribute inconsistent messaging and subpar performance largely to ineffective leadership.

From Lone Ranger to Leader

While it is conceivable for lone ranger CEOs to be present in large organizations, our experience suggests that such CEOs are more commonly found in smaller organizations, where managing and overseeing multiple functions independently may at first seem more manageable. The unfortunate truth is that wherever lone ranger CEOs show up, their destructive behaviors are usually deep-seated and quite hard to change. Adding to the challenge, these CEOs often exhibit a lack of self-awareness and are frequently unaware of the consequences their leadership approach is having. The following paragraphs provide a roadmap for helping lone ranger CEOs start the challenging journey to transform how they lead.

Self-Awareness – “I’m actually getting in the way.”

Helping lone ranger CEOs evolve from independent, controlling, and overconfident to becoming the visionary and collaborative leaders their organizations need is not an easy task. In simple terms, it is very hard for adults to change how they behave, especially managers who have had success and risen the ranks with a particular style. In rare cases input from direct reports, board members, coaches, peers in other companies can help lone ranger CEOs recognize that their styles might be getting in the way. Unfortunately, in most cases it takes a crisis – departures of key customers, missed projections, waning board confidence, declining employee engagement – to wake these CEOs up. The bottom line is that until a lone ranger CEO recognizes that he/she is part of the problem, nothing will change.

Recommit – “We need to build an integrated team.”

In any rehabilitative process the keys to success are acknowledgement and commitment. Lone ranger CEOs must put their self-awareness to work and acknowledge in specific terms, and without rationalizing, why their current leadership approach is not working. Vulnerability goes a long way as it provides hope to direct reports and, most importantly, demonstrates that it is ok to take accountability and admit mistakes. Next, CEOs should recommit to building an integrated leadership team and engage team members in shaping a vision for a great leadership team. Again, it is important for the CEO to help the team get specific: What does empowerment look like? What does collaboration mean for their team? What problems and challenges will they address as a team versus as functional leaders? How will they lean into the most important challenges they are facing in a productive manner?

Behavioral Commitments – “My actions will speak loudly.”

The truly hard work starts when the CEO begins to model a new leadership approach – from independence to collaboration; from control to empowerment; from overconfidence to relying on the team. While declaring a commitment to change is a positive step, it is only when CEOs actually start to practice different behaviors that they begin to gain the trust and authentic followership of their teams. This entails actions like actively listening to and placing trust in others’ perspectives, leaning into challenge and debate, closing the loop on communications, helping team members to collaborate, and being accountable to others. Direct reports will see real progress when CEOs ask, ‘How am I doing living up to my commitments?’ and then receive feedback with open arms and grace. When team members see this behavioral evolution – ‘do as I do, not just as I say’ – they are much more likely to emulate what they see.

Being a CEO can be a lonely job and much more so when leaders adopt a lone ranger approach. The evolution from lone ranger to leading a team of leaders can be challenging. It starts with recognition and vulnerability, takes a strong pronounced commitment to change, and requires active work to practice and model a new way of leading.

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