“Egocentric leaders destroy value”


Didier Marlier

May 08, 2010

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Last week’s post on “Leadership as a process” has generated a lot of discussions via direct e.mails (it must be thanks to the football clip…)

I thought useful to summarize and report conversations held with two CEO’s whose challenges were around:

  • Is “leadership as a process” another way to encourage conformism and obedience?
  • What do I do when my potential successor is very bright but maybe a bit too much of an individual star?

Edson Arantes Nascimento (Pelé) and the Brazilian wonderteam of 1970 you see playing here below are still considered, forty years after their last World Cup, as the best football player and team of all times. For the pleasure, I encourage you to watch this short clip (summary of the final of the Mexico 1970 World Cup) and see the blend of personal skills but also of generosity and altruism of Pelé (who scored one goal and was pivotal into two of the three others).

But Pelé, however extraordinarily talented he was, will be remembered for long not just because of his individual prowess but far more because he was a generous and altruistic player. The difference between him and other very remarkable footballers is that he was unconditionally putting his talent at the service of the team: the cause of the Brazilian or Santos teams was more important than the man to him!

When discussing, a while ago with a CEO about his successor, we rapidly realized that his discomfort, coming from his intuition, was that the man potentially called to replace him someday “was in it for himself”. His own interest was first, way before the collective success. The successor was more on an egocentric journey than on an altruistic and generous “Serve to Lead” one, as his the motto of UK’s famous Sandhurst military school. So, choose your leaders not just for their talent but for the way they make their team flourish by forgetting their ego and serving the company’s Purpose.

Going now to point No1, “Is leadership as a process a way to encourage conformism and obedience?”, I would refer back to the Brazilian national team and the very delicate tightrope its coaches are trying to walk. Looking at the four-yearly World Cups, it seems that the CBF (Brazil’s Football Association) is constantly swinging between two poles: either a “let go coach” who will interfere the least possible with the natural skills of the players and let them express themselves freely. “To systematize is to sterilize” used to say Nils Middelboe, a Danish merchant who played as an amateur for Chelsea in… 1913[1]. Then, the seleção goes overboard, players are reported to be partying a bit too often, too hard before important games and disappear before the end. So for the next Cup, the CBF chooses a solid dictator who will keep the team under control and make them play against nature in a style as inspiring and joyful to watch than the “Manschaft”[2] is for non-Germans…

Maybe the point missed here by the CBF and many coaches is that they should encourage the Brazilian artists to show the wonderful magic of their talent. We should create the conditions for the many small Pelés to blossom. But, in the same way, the coaches should be very clear and careful at ensuring that the players do not place their ego first instead of the common good.  Leadership as a process is an encouragement to create and shine, in an altruistic manner and not in a value destroying, narcissistic way.

Joe Sheridan is an exceptional “business-actor” (and a real movie actor too by the way) and I sometimes have the privilege to work with him in business conferences. He summarizes well what differentiates a great play from another: “A real actor is in it for the public and not to satisfy his ego!” The same goes for us as leaders!!!

Two weeks marathon between São-Paulo, Porto-Alegre, Belo-Horizonte and Zürich… Have a great week all


[1] Quoted by Rob Hugues in “Recipe for success: Let talent blossom” in International Herald Tribune April 28th 2010

[2] Nickname given to the extraordinarily resilient and competitive but not necessarily artistic and fascinating German national team


  1. Daniele

    Hi Didier, interesting articles in the last two weeks. Both right on the spot and with explanatory content.
    It would be nice maybe to discuss how one handles a workplace which potentially credits egoism more than altruism…
    There might be good team players out there who become jaded and “more” egoist because they see that the culture of their team does not eventually credit their generosity.
    Cheers Daniele

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you once more Jonathan,
      I cant agree more!!!
      Thank you for this historical reference I wasn’t aware of and will go check.
      Have a great day!

  2. Jonathan Wilson

    Another great little blog, Didier. Thanks!

    Mary Follett remains in my mind a leading thinker on leadership, though she died in 1935. She said that community is a process and the purpose of the leader is to help the community to generate sustainable power (i.e. the ability to change things and to respond effectively to change) by integrating difference without losing the difference.

    Power comes from awareness about oneself and the situation and the laws that determine the evolution of both. Thus good leaders educate and inform their people and help them to form their own sense of purpose. The leader then expresses the values and aims of the community in a way that resonates and evokes their deepest beliefs and inspires them to perform.

    Leadership is about helping people to form community, simultaneously to conform with and to transform the community they have formed (i.e. themselves in the whole) and to perform beyond their own expectations.

    Leadership is therefore about form and about the forming of community.

  3. Michel Audoin


    a few more comments on leadership as a process

    First, there is no one type of leadership. Depending on where you stay in the organization you are confronted with more or less complex issues, that require different types of reaction.
    If you are in the field, the problem is normally quite simple, the solution easy to imagine and is based very often on immediate action. Key word is “do”.If you are at the top the problem needs a lot more of understanding, the solution is always a compromise and consequently subject to criticism. Key word is “think”
    The problem arises when you have to align these different leaders with different agendas and opposite MBTI.

    Second, I am wondering whether leadership is really a process.
    In a process, there is an input, an action and an output. What we are discussing is more analyzing whether the right people are at the right place. It is not a methodology for action. It is not something you can track with an indicator.

    Third, all companies today have well trained and disciplined people, using the same methods to improve, receiving the same information,… So having the right people with the right values at the right place seems to be the key,
    But how do you achieve this if we are all formated the same way ? Are you prepared to authorize your people not to apply these methods, which would mean that these methods are either made for stupid people or are stupid ?

    Definitely, shareholders’ value is easier to define and to achieve !

    Yours friendly

  4. Didier Marlier

    Thank you Daniel for contributing to our blog.

    Your story personally resonates with me as I experienced something similar some times ago: A consultancy with whom I used to partner was showing signs of selfishness, protectiveness and some kind of “What is yours is mine and what is mine is mine attitude”. I felt that my partners and I were confronted to a real “Prisoners’ dilemma” situation: by refusing to share and cooperate generously, both sides would make fools of themselves on the market and loose. By being the one continuing to let information flow freely but seeing no reciprocity, I was unfairly risking to let our knowledge fall into the hands of people who would use and copyright it as their own invention. But by remaining open, I could hope that both sides would continue openly share and enrich each other.
    One of my partners with whom I was sharing my doubts brought the debate at the level of values: “If you believe in the GRAVITAS values of the Open Economy, just keep on remaining open without worrying about how the other side reciprocates or uses it”.
    As Gerd often explain in his lectures, both systems, open and closed have their champions: Google can be seen as a successful example of the first whereas Apple strives on the second. I therefore chose to keep it at the level of my own values and chose to stay open…
    Have a great week and thank you for challenging

  5. Didier Marlier

    Thank you Michel for sharing your thoughts and experience. A C.E.O. taking the personal risk to do so in an open column is something highly appreciated here…

    1) I find your point about different styles of leadership to be needed
    absolutely spot on. From the famous “Situational Leadership” (with its
    highly directive “Tell” style, efficient in times of crisis and with a
    relatively immature crowd of followers, the “Sell”, seeking to convince,
    “Involve”, inviting the followers to co-create solutions and “Devolve” where the organization has become self managed) to the interesting study of Korn-Ferry on several thousands of leaders careers around the world (showing that those who kept on growing as leaders were those who were able to “reinvent themselves” to match the challenge of their new responsibilities) all seem to agree with you that there is no single best way to lead. “It depends” it the right answer.
    As you describe it, our challenge as leaders is to create the conditions for these different styles and temperaments to be able to “co-lead” and this is where “Leadership as a process” or team leadership are needed.

    2) Following the definition you propose of process, I agree that it makes
    less of a sense to call leadership, a process. When I use this word, I mean that leadership can either be stuck with one person (the boss) who jealously defends his position and signals that as long as he will stay around, he will not tolerate challenge to his authority, or more fluid, shared, just as in a football team where leadership is spread amongst the 11 players on the field and whilst one temporarily decides from the game orientation (defensive by passing to the back players, risk taking by trying something crazy and unexpected). Whereas individual leadership often tends to kill the collective energy by imposing, telling and harvesting dependency and obedience, leadership as a process harnesses energy, drive and passion by making everyone accountable and part of the solution. The effect of leadership can be measured in financial, customer/employee satisfaction etc… Hay consultants even claim to have researched that the personal styles of the significant leaders determines up to 70% of a firm’s culture.

    3) Just like for a football team, a company will have (and look to have) a
    wide variety of people. By engaging them through the appropriate style of leadership, it will release their energy and determination. Once again,
    Leadership as a Process is the contrary to one fits all mold. I share with
    you the conviction that information being widely spread and more readily
    available, having a distinctive and differentiated strategy becomes more and more of a challenge. This is precisely why we believe that shaping
    intelligent organizations (instead of the pyramidal and hierarchical), with
    a style of leadership that engages people into sustainable performance is the new competitive advantage.

    About the duty to disobey, one of my earlier post referred to the highly
    disciplined Prussian army: one of the rules the young officers first learned was to disobey to unreasonable orders… It is a risky personal decision back at work. An engaging leader will welcome and seek to understand the push back of her followers, but for the person choosing to disobey (going with this is also the way we choose to do it that matters) it bears a heavy part of uncertainty.

    Thank you for engaging us all into a deeper and experience based reflection, Michel, have a very good week




  1. The loneliness of an egocentric leader | Business Game Time - [...] the last two posts in the excellent blog by author and leadership coach Didier Marlier used soccer as a…

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