Overcoming the Temptations of a Leader

Posted 08.28.2012

With a hat tip to the Harvard Business Review’s Morning Advantage newsletter for pointing it out, I read a really interesting article from the Corporate Executive Board last week on why and when employees cheat their companies. After conducting a comprehensive study, the researchers concluded that people are more likely to cheat when they’re experiencing a significant change like a reorganization, a merger, a promotion or a staff reduction at work. The study also shows that the average employee is going to experience at least two significant changes a year. So, the odds are high that people are going to be tempted to do something they shouldn’t at least a couple of times a year.

The study reminded me of a conversation I was in the last time I taught in the leadership coaching program at Georgetown University. The topic that morning was abiding by the International Coach Federation code of ethics. One of the provisions in the code is that coaches must not get romantically involved with their clients. As is often the case, that was the most vigorously “what if’d” part of the conversation. I was impressed and amused with the imaginative scenarios some of the students came up with and I confessed that some of them apparently led way more interesting lives than I do. We were having some good laughs when one of the students said he wanted to bring it back to a more serious point. This fellow was a retired pastor who was entering into a second career as a coach and this is more or less what he shared with us:

“One of the things I learned in forty years in the pastorate is that it’s not if you’re going to be presented at some point with sexual temptation, it’s when. In my experience, the pastors who fell were the ones who kidded themselves into thinking that they would never be tempted.  The ones who survived were the ones who came up with a strategy for how they were going to handle it when they were tempted.”

Obviously, you don’t have to look very far or long to find example after example of leaders who have succumbed to one form or another of temptation – financial, sexual, power, glory or any number of things. The stories are in the news all the time. As the Corporate Executive Board study and my Georgetown friend both point out, it’s not a question of if you’re going to face temptation, it’s when.

What should your strategy be for resisting temptation when it strikes? Here are some suggestions that have worked for me and people I know:

Think Long Term: Tempting opportunities are often acted upon in the moment without much thought given to the long term consequences. Learning to ask yourself a question like “What could the long term impact of this decision be on my career, my family or my life?” can really pull up you short and set you back on the right path.

Ask, “What would they think?”: There’s likely someone in your life or your history who you hold up as a paragon of virtue. Get in the habit of asking yourself, “What would they think?” before making a decision that involves temptation. Another way to put it is would you want to have to explain what you did to your grandmother?

Recruit an Extra Conscience: It can be a big ask to sort out or resist temptation with nothing but an internal dialogue. You can improve your odds by recruiting a trusted friend or colleague (best from outside your organization) to be an extra conscience. Establish a regular time to talk with each other about what’s going on in your life. Everything is on the table but off the record.

What all of these strategies have in common is they assume some capacity to manage the gap between stimulus and response. If you immediately act on an impulse, none of these are likely to help. Training yourself to use techniques like this can strengthen your capacity to reflect and think before you act.

What’s your take? What should leaders do to overcome the temptations that are certain to present themselves along the way?