My daughter and I share a love of Greek and Roman mythology. We are currently reading “The Mark of Athena,” the third installment of Rick Riordan’s “The Heroes of Olympus.” It is such great material and rich with modern interpretations of the stories.
Percy Jackson, a demigod (son of Poseidon and a mortal) and one of the main heroes in the book series, is confronted with a particularly challenging quest. Following a confrontation with another demigod in which Percy very well could have been killed, he begins to question his power…and himself. Eerily like many leaders in top organizations I work with on a daily basis.
“Percy didn’t feel powerful. The more heroic stuff he did, the more he realized how limited he was. He felt like a fraud. ‘I’m not as great as you think,’ he wanted to warn his friends. Maybe that’s why he had started to fear suffocation. It wasn’t so much drowning in the earth or the sea, but the feeling that he was sinking into too many expectations, literally getting in over his head.”
When I read Percy’s rumination I flashed back to a conversation I had with a CEO of an organization last year. Much of the business’s growth had been meteoric and his “reputation” had grown with similar speed -- to almost cult like proportions.
His ego reveled in being held in such high regard, but through our discussions he acknowledged he was quaking inside, “Just waiting for them to see who I really am and for it all to fall apart!”
As his external world seemed to improve his internal world deteriorated. This leader found himself closing down and trying to control more and more. He was less open to comments from his executive team, often making unilateral decisions without consulting them. He discounted information that he did not agree with. He was cutting himself off -- suffocating himself!
He began to lose touch with the values that anchored his initial success, replacing them with others’ expectations. His compass no longer pointed to his “true north,” and he began to lose his way.
We see it constantly in the news -- General Patraeus, Eliot Spitzer, and the Secret Service detail in Columbia, to name just a few leaders (or those considered leaders in their field). They drowned in others’ expectations or projections of greatness, leading to poor judgment and a belief to some extent of being “above the law.”
When a CEO (or any leader) loses their way, it has a ripple effect throughout the organization, their family, and their entire community! The collateral damage is immense.
Who else do you know who responds to feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy with greater levels of denial, self-importance, and constriction? We all know someone who fits that profile...they might even be staring at us in the mirror in the morning.
The remedy is a loving, tough, trusting, outside advisor. A person who calls it like they see it and says the things that a person often doesn’t want to hear. Luckily, Percy Jackson had his demigod friends as trusted advisors to help him find his way.
Who do you have?
Commit to getting your own advisor (it could be an executive coach, a mentor, or a trusted friend), or you may run the risk of becoming a self destructive high performer. Leadership is a challenging path that all of us need help navigating. Make sure that you have a support system that will keep you from a path like Percy’s.
Oh, and that CEO I had the discussion with…he’s still looking for work.
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