Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “True Leadership Today”
Type in “bad boss” on your internet browser, and you’ll see well over one million references, including articles, videos, episodic shows, and more all about terrible bosses who make our lives miserable. Our pop culture seems to love the bad boss, and we also love to share hilarious memes of bosses like Michael Scott from The Office. And we cheer while watching the demise of terrible managers in box office hits like Horrible Bosses. I’ve written my fair share about terrible bosses, and had several in my corporate life and understand the challenge they pose to employees and organizational success. And in my work as an executive and career coach over the past 15 years, I’ve fielded countless queries about how to handle a destructive and even narcissistic boss.
Egregious executive behavior can play well on the silver screen, but it’s fraught with real-world consequences, as we all know. According to leadership experts Bill Treasurer and John Havlik, bad-boss behavior stems from all-too-common leadership tendencies (or seeds of those tendencies) that many of us carry within us: hubris, arrogance, and a proclivity to abuse power. If those tendencies go unchecked for too long, our leadership capability, reputation, value to the organization, and positive impact will be severely impacted.
In their new book, The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance, the authors share that there is an antidote to the prevailing do-anything, say-anything, “because I can” culture today, and it’s humility. Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Captain John Havlik and leadership development expert and author Bill Treasurer compile decades of insights from advising global organizations and leading elite military special operations teams to pinpoint precisely where good leaders go bad, and, more importantly, how to recognize your own hubris and become more effective and humble. The book shares important information that will help leaders thrive by understanding:
- How even self-aware leaders with noble intentions can become inebriated with power
- Why hubris kills your team’s mission, morale, performance, and loyalty
- Where the “leadership killer” hides in your everyday work routine, waiting to strike
- How to manage the “Three Rs,” today’s most common leadership pressures
- 5 “Don’t do this!” strategies to keep your hubris in check
- How to answer the critical question: “How will I use my leadership power?”
- Tips for thriving, humble leadership that benefits everyone
To learn more about hubris and how it’s a top leadership killer, I was excited to catch up this week with Captain John “Coach” Havlik, U.S. Navy SEAL (Retired), who led special operations teams around the world during his 31-year naval career, including the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the SEAL’s most elite operational unit. Captain Havlik was a nationally ranked swimmer and is a member of the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame and Mountaineer Legends Society.
Here’s what Havlik shares:
Kathy Caprino: What inspired you and Bill Treasurer to write this book?
John Havlik: Bill and I renewed our friendship at a college swim/dive team reunion soon after I retired from the military in 2014. It was there that Bill invited me to speak about my SEAL leadership experiences at several of his Courageous Leadership workshops and seminars that he held around the country. As we prepped for these presentations, Bill and I would frequently talk, and almost always we found ourselves discussing a recent news story or headline about some leader in the military, business, corporate, or academic world being fired or relieved from their position because of doing something “bad” or “unprofessional” (i.e. stupid) in their job.
During one discussion, Bill mentioned that he was thinking of writing his fifth book and asked me if I would be interested in co-authoring it with him. Once we figured out that the theme of the book would be about the traits and actions that make good leaders go bad, I was on board.
Caprino: What are your 3 takeaways for readers on how to remain a humble, but effective leader?
Havlik: The top 3 takeaways from our book and experiences are:
Have a check
It’s hard to self-manage your ego, so you need to have a “check,” or someone you trust that has your back, and can call you out when you start acting or stepping out of bounds.
Walk the Deckplates
Learn to push away from your desk, “walk the deckplates,” and talk with the people that work for you. In the Navy, the deckplate is where the actual work is done. The sailors on the deckplates are smart, and they’ll give you honest feedback about what’s going on around the command and unit. As a leader, the “ground truth” is almost always filtered as it rises up the chain of command through middle management (department heads) to the executive suites. I found if I really wanted to know what is going on around the command, I’d ask the sailors directly.
Open your mental aperture
As a leader, you’re foolish to think you know it all. Constantly seek new information and feedback to prevent getting stale or complacent in your duties.
Caprino: Can you please share more about what you experienced and then learned about yourself when you had to get out of the Navy because of your “failure to promote?”
Havlik: In the Navy, an officer gets two opportunities to be selected for promotion to the next higher paygrade or rank, and if you aren’t selected by either of those two selection boards, you are involuntarily discharged from the active duty ranks for “failing to promote.” Unfortunately, that happened to me.
Leaving the Navy hit me hard, and I headed back to my parent’s home with my tail between my legs, and had to figure out what I was going to do with my life after 13 years of living the high life as a Navy SEAL. I hit rock bottom (the book explains this in greater detail) but I was able to make amends and resurrect my naval career.
What I learned about myself was that I wasn’t the cocky, bad-ass SEAL that I thought I was. But I also learned that I had more to offer the Navy, and to get back on active duty, I had a lot of hard work ahead of me. Most importantly, I was proud that I didn’t quit on myself when things got bad, and that the internal resolve and fortitude that carried me through swimming and through SEAL training was alive and well, and I used that resiliency to get back on active duty.
Caprino: How did it make you a better leader and SEAL officer?
Havlik: It humbled me big time and made me appreciate how much I loved the Navy and the second chance I was given to be an active SEAL again. I learned to not take myself too seriously, to learn about my people and listen to them. It also reinforced the concept that it’s always about the mission, and not the individual.
Caprino: What would you have done differently when you were a young junior officer in the Navy and the SEALs?
Havlik: I would have focused on doing two things better:
I should’ve listened to what people told me very early on when I first got into the Navy, and that was to find a mentor or “sea daddy” to help me manage my career. Because I was young, cocky and full of hubris, I thought that I knew it all and that I could do it myself, and I “tuned out” advice from my seniors as I progressed through my career. Very bad move on my part!
Get smart about office politics
I should’ve gotten smart on office “politics.” I learned the hard way that the best and brightest don’t always get promoted/advanced, and the reality is it’s very often who you know that gets you the key career enhancing jobs/assignments.
Caprino: What was the best thing you did as a leader to make you more effective?
Havlik: As I mentioned earlier, the best thing I ever did as a leader was learning to push away from my desk and my inbox, talk, listen and learn from and about my people. Your subordinates need to know that you value them, their input and their knowledge. They want to know that you are humble enough to admit you don’t know everything, and that you want to learn from them, regardless of rank.
For this to be effective, I did “walkabouts” of the command every Friday when I was the Executive Officer of a special operations boat unit in Panama. Whenever I was local and not on travel or leave, I would use the weekly “Field Day” to visit every department assigned to me, check the work space cleanliness that was part of my duties as XO, but most importantly, meet and talk with my sailors.
It was very uncomfortable and awkward at first, but through commitment and consistency on my part, the sailors learned over time that my weekly walkabouts were an opportunity for them to talk directly to leadership. Eventually, an invaluable rapport and trust between me and the sailors was built, mainly because we were talking to each on the same level (eye-to-eye), and I wasn’t talking down to them, as is the norm in most organizations.
Caprino: What makes excessive pride or arrogance a top leadership killer, over other behavioral traits?
Havlik: To me, excessive pride or arrogance (a.k.a. “hubris”), is the root that feeds all the other negative leadership behavioral traits. In our book, Bill and I write that hubris is the silent killer of good leaders, waiting to strike when the leader least expects it.
Arrogance feasts on uncontrolled power and success, and will lay wreckage to all the potential good a leader could have done had their hubris been “checked.”
For more information, visit The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance.
To build your professional strength and impact, join me in a Career Breakthrough private coaching program, and take my 16-week Amazing Career Project career-boosting course (the newest session is open now!).
Also, don’t miss my Finding Brave podcast where you’ll learn more from John Havlik about this top leadership trait that crushes our success, and from other amazing leadership experts, coaches, business and entrepreneurial influencers, bestselling authors, disruptors, creatives and more.