Recognize the symptoms of CEO disease before it’s too late

Experience is a good thing. Business leaders who have been at the helm of their companies for many years have seen a lot, navigated the organization through many challenges and no doubt learned valuable lessons that have made them more capable leaders. But all that experience, along with the confidence it imbues, can lead to a problem: CEO disease.

Tasha Eurich, writing for Harvard Business Review, highlighted a contradiction: experience can lead to overconfidence. And the more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities.

There are two proposed explanations for this. One is that senior leaders have fewer people above them to provide candid feedback. The other is that the more power a leader wields, the less likely those around them will give constructive feedback for fear of repercussions.

Biggby Coffee CEO Mike McFall learned about this phenomenon the hard way. In a story recalled in Inc. magazine, he was facing crumbling morale, and employees resigned without even leaving a note. A consultant surveyed his employees and learned that they felt as if they were in an abusive relationship.

“I realized I’d built a wall between me and my employees,” the article quotes. “I had what I call CEO disease. I wasn’t open to feedback. I didn’t think I could be wrong.”

Signs of CEO disease could appear in your environment. High turnover is one symptom, and it needs to be treated. When COE Distribution, a company we wrote about back in 2021, became frustrated by the high turnover that undermined its growth, President and CEO J.D. Ewing diagnosed it as a culture problem. Part of how he addressed it was to create an employee feedback system he called “start, stop, continue.” It gave employees a way to tell management what they thought the company should start doing, stop doing and continue to do, and management acknowledged every answer with a reply. That action contributed to a cultural turnaround.

Business leaders can also get feedback on their performance through executive coaching, or as Eurich suggests, improve their self-awareness by talking with “loving critics” — people who have the business leader’s best interests in mind and are willing to tell them the truth.

Bosses, much like employees, can do a good job or a bad job. And much like you’d be quick to correct an employee’s detrimental habits, so should you want to quickly address any adverse behaviors you have in the workplace. The signs might not be obvious, so get feedback whenever possible. Otherwise, your undiagnosed case of CEO disease could spread throughout your organization. ●

Fred Koury is President and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc.

Fred Koury

President and CEO
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