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The 5 Temptations

The 5 Temptations of a CEO 五度誘惑

Just gone through Patrick Lencioni’s first book The 5 Temptations of a CEO. It is a remarkable book on management issues written as a fiction. Thus it is quite enjoyable reading through the story. It is also easy reading. The setting was a bit scary, where the character met strange persons in a midnight train; sort of a twilight zone story. The day after, the CEO found out that these people were all past CEOs of his companies. I wonder why he didn’t recognize them in the first instance. May be these CEOs are from ancient era. The fiction did not state whether they were ghosts, or returned from another time, or just old men still enjoying their retirement. From the lesson learnt on the midnight train, the CEO changed and performed differently at the board meeting the next day. But it was too late. The story took a turn and the leading character CEO turned into the phantom advisor himself.

The theme of the story is of course the temptations. They are all on behaviour and culture which are hard to change. There is nothing about strategic decision, competitive advantage and all sort of management theories. The main thrust is that if the CEO can get over the temptations, then the rest are just routine problems.

1st temptation: Choosing status over results – We’ve seen much of this in the government. CEOs put their concern on their own status at the expense of actual results. The temptation to preserve one’s status is strong. An CEO will not like any damage to be done to his status. They choose the easy way out, deliver less, maintain status quo because less results won’t hurt in government but mistakes will. 不做不錯,烏紗可保. To beat the temptation, one needs moral, ethic and real pride in his work achievement. Status will come this way.

2nd temptation: Choosing popularity over accountability – Everyone like to be popular with others. It is also the Chinese culture to 隱惡揚善, in particular when the subordinate is older, respectable and is an unchallenged expert in his field. Temptation to be popular kept the CEO from telling his staff the real problem and work expectation although dissatisfaction grew, in order not to hurt his feeling and be in confrontation. The staff did not realize the need to improve and was not given the accountability of his work. The irony is that the CEO would not hesitate to fire the subordinate when it got out of hand and inflicted permanent damage to other’s career because the subordinate was gone for good and there was not more confrontation, while the timely honest advice did. Just look at our performance appraisals and you will know how hard to avoid this temptation.

3rd temptation: Choosing certainty over clarity – We learn about rational decision making. Right decisions are based on sufficient information, evaluation of alternatives, and the choice of the most advantageous, or least damaging action. In reality, certainty is unreachable. The maximizer will use up all his time choosing. 刨木直至無木. The temptation to be certain in making the right decision is hard to beat, but it will be lead to no decision, wait-and-see decision, muddy decision or unclear decision. The CEO learned that any decision is better than no decision. Wrong decision is not that bad if it can get the organization working, and clarity in the decision enables early correction of any undesirable results. All roads are not straight.

4th temptation: Choosing harmony over positive conflict – Harmony is the ultimate goal in human spirit. It is also the essence of Zen and many religions. Any kind human being will try to maintain harmony around him. The CEO did not regard creating harmony a temptation. He maintained harmony in his organization, during meetings and at work. The phantom advisor reminded the good effect of productive ideological conflict, that hidden issues could only be revealed in conflict, and truth would come out of debate,越辯越明, and keep the organization lively. On the other hand, pure harmony could stifle creativity and hide grievances.

5th temptation: Choosing invulnerability over trust – It is natural survival instinct that one does not want to be weak, wrong or hurt. It is a great temptation that one should feel invulnerable, and in the process creating suspicion and defense. The CEO learned that in order to fight this temptation, he should know how to admit that he was wrong and trust his subordinates in challenging his ideas. Only then the mistake committed by the organization has a chance to be put right.

Lencioni showed that the sequential impact of the principles of the 5 temptations are in reverse order, starting from the 5th. Instilling trust gives executives the confidence to have productive conflict. Fostering conflict gives executive confidence to create clarity. Clarity gives executives the confidence to hold people accountable. Accountability gives executives confidence in expected results. And results are a CEO’s ultimate measure of long-term success.