Please take some time this week to read the recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Dan Lyons titled, “Jerks and the Start-Ups They Ruin.

Even if you do not work in or around the start-up environment, this piece will resonate with you, causing you to nod your head, “Yep, yep.”

The bad behavior Dan writes about is everywhere–not just at start-ups. In the past few months we have seen (and continue to see) some amazingly stunning examples of people with big titles saying terrible things and acting on their behavior.

What gets me the most about unacceptable leadership behavior is the seemingly “shocked” reaction these leaders exhibit when they are caught and questioned. They are irked that people are surprised by their actions, as if being smart or being in charge means it is OK to be a jerk, an idiot, an asshole. Forgive my language, yet it seems as if many people haven’t read Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule

A leader (whether of a start-up, a large company, a community,  a church/temple/mosque, a country–ahem) is a public individual.

The rules are different for people operating in a named role as a leader. He or she is in the limelight. Expect to be scrutinized. Expect to have your words written down and analyzed. Expect to have your actions video taped.

Many if not all of these individuals have sought after these public roles: started a company and choose to remain its top executive, campaigned for political office, pursued a high-stakes role, etc.

Being a leader is stressful. I get it. Most of us get. But that is no excuse for indulging, repeatedly, in actions that range from foolish to stupid to illegal.

The “bro CEO” culture Dan Lyons writes about creates leaders who end up on my calendar a few times a year.

An HR executive, a board member, or a fellow executive gives me a call and fills my ear about how this “amazing” leader has made some mistakes but is ready to change. He (not she; it has been several years since a female executive with egregious behavior was on my calendar) is “totally on board” with coaching.

No, he isn’t. Being pushed to the brink because you have done something embarrassing and it has been made public doesn’t mean you are “ready” for help. You are simply in a situation that feels very uncomfortable and an easy out would be to agree with someone saying, “You need help.” Read more about my thoughts on this in relation to the CEO of Uber in this BBC.com article.

I use three questions to smoke out if someone is sincere about changing behavior.

  1. Do you need help?

Backed into a corner, a bro CEO can readily say, “Yes, I need help.”

  1. Do you want help?

This answer is also affirmative. It becomes a tad harder for someone to answer quickly and sincerely, yet I hear, “Yes, I want help.”

  1. Will you accept help and be held accountable?

And this is where the three-legged stool breaks apart.

This is what I hear instead of a firm “yes” to the third question.

  • “I will know when I have changed. You don’t need to talk to stakeholders.”
  • “You don’t need to shadow me. I will know when I am doing something wrong.”
  • “The board, etc. is too busy to participate. Let’s not bother them. We can solve this together. Let’s not make a big deal of it.”
  • “Why wouldn’t I accept help? I’m here talking to you, aren’t I?”

Coaching won’t help these bro CEOs. Coaching is not the solution. There isn’t enough motivation for them to change, and the consequences aren’t great enough.

I love working with smart people, and helping abrasive leaders with low EQ is one of my strengths. But my leaders have a conscience, have an understanding that their way isn’t the only way, and understand the risks of their behavior.

They want to be held accountable. Why? They can imagine that work will be easier and a heck of a lot more fun if they if stop a select few behaviors and instead focus on strengths and defining their leadership vision and values.

Reach out if you want to learn more or discuss this.

Best wishes from the Bay Area,

Leila

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