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Michael D. Watkins is Professor for leadership and organizational change at IMD. He heads the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) program. All texts from Professor Dr. Michael Watkins.

Donald Trump & CEO Syndrome: Bosses Don't Want Bad News

That President Trump does not like bad news is nothing new. However, the continuing news of his dislike of everything negative is thought-provoking: what happens when managing in Company show the same behavior?

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What happens if supervisors do not want to hear bad news?

A Items in the Washington Posts on Trump's reaction to negative comparisons regarding the number of people present at the presidential inauguration and that of his predecessor nicely captures the consequences of his hubris:

"President Trump had returned to the White House from his final inauguration, a quiet prayer service, on Saturday when the flashes of anger began to grow. Trump turned on the television to see a jarring juxtaposition - massive demonstrations around the globe protested his presidency, while the footage revealed the small number of people present at his inauguration, with large white empty spaces on the street. And while his press secretary Sean Spicer was still unpacking boxes in his new, spacious West Wing office, Trump was visibly angry. "

The result, as we know, was a hastily-called press conference where Spicer repeated easily exposed falsehoods about the size of the audience at Trump's inauguration, and severely reprimanded journalists. Trump immediately and permanently undermined his position in the media.

What is the CEO syndrome?

While this is an extreme example, leadership behaviors like President Trump's are by no means uncommon; they occur all the time with senior executives. I call CEO syndrome, the dangerous tendency of some executives to be unable to deal with bad news, the impact on everyone who works for them and ultimately the health of their organizations.

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Why is that a problem? Because supervisors who can't handle bad news are surrounded by people who isolate them or tell them what to hear. The weaknesses this creates are obvious and potentially serious for your organizations. When bad news is denied or never surfaced, crises are practically inevitable. Issues that should have been raised and dealt with are suppressed until they explode into harmful “foreseeable surprises”.

The danger of not being able to deal with reality

Beyond the perceived dangers of this kind of denial, superiors who can not deal with reality, deny their subordinates also the reality. In the process, these subordinates are completely dependent on the supervisor and need to support and defend something that others in the organization can demonstrably recognize as wrong. This Items from Tyler Cohen at Bloomberg brilliantly the effects of such a superior on the behavior of the subordinates.

“By requiring subordinates to tell falsehoods, a leader can undermine his or her independent standing, including his standing in the public, the media, and other members of the administration. This makes these individuals more dependent on the leader and less prone to independent rebellions against the command structure. The promotion of such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future. "

In this way, executive dysfunction "infects" the entire organization, again with potentially catastrophic results.

No one is immune to the CEO syndrome

While in some cases these behaviors are simply part of the leader's core personality, no one, not even the best leader, is truly immune to CEO syndrome. The position at the top of the organization comes with the power to shape reality, at least until the walls inside collapse. It is the extraordinary leader who never succumbs to the temptation to shut himself off from the bad news, isolate himself, or let others tell him what he wants to hear in order to gain power. And it is the extraordinarily brave (or daring) subordinate who is truly willing and able to "speak truth to power".

Executives who have been in the role for some time and are gradually moving away from it are particularly at risk Criticism isolate by surrounding themselves with people who create a calming echo chamber for them. So don't let this happen to you.

How to avoid the CEO syndrome?

  1. Create a culture where bad news comes quickly on the table. Like Colin Powell carries, “Bad news is not wine; they don't get better with age. ”That means really listening openly and realizing that things have gone wrong, not shooting the messenger and not telling the people who work with you,“ Bring me solutions, not problems ” (Plans yes, but not fully worked out solutions unless you want to slow the flow of information). It is also a deterrent for people in the organization to hide important information.
  2. Create and use a diverse one Network of consultants. Don't build a clone crew. Cultivate and listen when promoting people with different perspectives. Read a lot and from many different sources. Out into the world. Refuse to be isolated.
  3. Build dedicated units to scan the environment, develop and explore scenarios, and provide early warning. Do not let it be a bureaucratic exercise.

Most importantly, remember that your organization's culture is of you as a Executive is powerfully shaped - for better and for worse.

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10 responses to “Donald Trump & CEO Syndrome: Bosses Don't Want Bad News”

  1. Hans-Jürgen Schäfer's Profile says:

    Chr. Lindner is not the best example for me either. :-)
    I stand there rather on Mrs. Merkel as chancellor and SPD chairman. :-)
    But he did it right and I would recommend to many of us to think about such a step.
    It does not have to be the big goal, which is a flourishing company in 2 or 5 years. Even during a compulsory employment, a small business can be registered, without the pressure to have to create something every month.
    Once you have found the right idea, it starts to be fun and it does not feel like work.
    We at Netzwerk Arbeit eV have started like that and in the meantime something has developed quite a bit and we have already recruited staff and expect a further positive development.
    Even during unemployment, for example, a small job can make sense. Perhaps an employer who does not think of a job at the moment but who needs help at short notice can be found. And then one is fast at hand, provides the achievement and writes an invoice.
    What happens later on, you can see when the time has come.
    And the excuse that the expenditure with commercial application and the financial office is too large, which should not draw, if one can be rationally enlightened.

    • Simone Janson says:

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, power is seductive.

  2. Hans-Jürgen Schäfer's Profile says:

    Trump is in this position because he wanted to achieve something and a Rolex, another yacht or satisfied customers and employees would not have been enough to satisfy his need for satisfaction.
    He became president to have power. And his chaotic action shows that he can only do the job more or less well. The next goal could be to win over other countries.
    Our or my task is to be able to face a task that you have chosen yourself to be able to do something with it or with it.
    .........................
    "If you want to recognize the character of a person, give him power."
    Abraham Lincoln

    • Simone Janson says:

      Hello Mr. Schäfer,
      I agree with you - but the events of the coming week made it a good idea on this subject.

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