Steven Mundahl, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries in Western Massachusetts, has just written a new book that explores the behaviors that cause leaders to fall from grace. It’s called The Alchemy of Authentic Leadership (2013).
A leadership scholar and professor of leadership effectiveness at Baypath College, Mundahl has some refreshingly original ideas about why people who appear to have it all engage in risky behaviors that cause them to self-destruct—often leaving wounded companies, organizations, and people in their ruinous wake. More important, he offers strategies for avoiding those behaviors.
Constantly in the news we see examples of fallen leaders—in sports, politics, religion, entertainment, and business. It seems that once people have a lot of power, they become especially vulnerable to the short-term high that having an affair, for example, or taking an ethical shortcut sometimes delivers. Mundahl says leaders who are at the top of their game may have a disproportionate sense of self-importance that leads them to feel that ordinary rules of conduct don’t apply to them.
But rather than rehashing the reasons why leaders fall, I thought it would be interesting to find out from Mundahl how leaders who are teetering on the brink of making a poor decision can stop themselves before it’s too late.
Here’s his advice for leaders who have a lot to lose by engaging in risky, self-sabotaging behaviors.
Pay Attention to Your Body
Scientists from the fields of behavior, psychology, and neurology now understand a lot about risk-taking behavior. “When you are hungry, sleepy, tired, depleted, and stressed out, your brain is vulnerable to various processes that interfere with rational thought and impulse control,” says Mundahl. He recommends that you eat healthy food regularly, try to get eight hours of sleep a night, exercise every day if you can, and learn ways to manage stress, whether it’s with a nap, a stroll outside, or meditation.
Live with Awareness
Genuinely examine your emotional wounds. Mundahl says “unhealed wounds can create anger, jealousy, risky behaviors, or addictive behaviors.” Attempt to “link” them to an event or events often created in childhood, and be compassionate with yourself. If the wounds are highly emotionally charged, he advises that you engage the comfort and support of a psychotherapist trained to help you heal them. “Try not to react, but to examine, understand, and be patient and kind with yourself and others.”
Put Yourself on a Short Leash
“If you have engaged in impulsive or destructive behavior, admit it,” says Mundahl. “Don’t let repetitive behavior destroy your personal or company life. Even if you think you are keeping it secret, it will take a long time for others to heal when they find out you have repeatedly broken their trust.” As you would with a disobedient dog, jerk your short leash and say: “Once is enough!”
Use Tools that Counteract Negative Emotions
Mundahl recommends simple things such as seeking a better perspective, taking a deep breath or a drink of water, remembering those things for which you are grateful, resting in meditation for a few moments, praying, or being fully aware in the present moment (mindfulness). All of these tools can counteract the quick rise of emotion most of us feel when triggered to risky behavior.
Have a Daily Spiritual Practice
Linking to the divine intelligence that imbues all life can lead us to inner peace. “When we fill up with the true love of a greater consciousness,” says Mundahl, “we truly lack for nothing. For some that might be church, prayer, and confession. For others it may be reading inspirational books or spending time in nature.” He says quiet meditation and prayer will naturally align you with higher values. “You more easily hear your inner spiritual or intuitive voice.” When we can view ourselves as being “part of a greater whole” we do not feel so alone, nor so apt to engage in risky behaviors.
Use “Self-Shock” Therapy
Think of those you love and what your repetitive risky behaviors would do to them if you were found out, says Mundahl. This last recommendation is my favorite: “Think of what your own headline would be as you engaged in unethical or risky behaviors.” Would anyone want his or her worst qualities splashed across the evening news? Probably not! Good advice.