Lucy Kellaway: The seven deadly sins CEOs won't admit

Boss on telephone

It's a classic job interview question: "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" At the top of the business world, people seem to have taken to heart the advice to admit no negative traits, just positives in disguise, says Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times.

Every week for the past year and a half, the Financial Times has asked business leaders 20 questions including: "What are your three worst features?"

Executive Sins

They are:

  • Control freaks
  • Vain
  • Ditherers
  • Bad at listening
  • Bullies
  • Afraid of conflict
  • No good at small talk

By studying the replies, I've amassed a treasure trove of data that overwhelmingly supports a long-held pet theory of mine.

The three worst traits of chief executives are a lack of self-knowledge, a lack of self-knowledge and a quite extraordinary willingness to give themselves the benefit of the doubt.

When it comes to describing their dark sides, 58 out of 60 leaders felt bound by the same rule - any weakness is perfectly admissible, so long as it is really a strength.

They almost all cite impatience, perfectionism and being too demanding - all of which turn out to be things that it's rather good for a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to be.

What is particularly interesting about this mass outpouring of faux weaknesses is that there is no difference between men and women, and no difference between Americans and Europeans. All are as bad as each other.

Psychobabble

Anyone who has ever spent five minutes talking to a CEO can tell you that they have more faults than the next person, because they are extreme versions of humanity.

Start Quote

Lucy Kellaway

There is only one senior leader I know who has no obvious faults”

End Quote Lucy Kellaway

In the past 15 years of studying them, I've drawn up a list of the seven most common deadly sins.

They are control freaks. They are vain. They are ditherers. They don't listen. They are bullies. They are afraid of conflict. And they can't do small talk.

Given that most of the 60 interview candidates were probably guilty of at least one of the above, why did none of them own up?

The first possibility is that they didn't dare.

But I suspect the real problem is worse: they don't know what their faults are.

A decade of psychobabble, coaching and 360-degree feedback has made no difference.

It has not changed the most basic truth - people never speak truth to power.

Honesty prize

This denial of flaws is a pity. We like people better when they wear their blemishes openly. It makes them seem more human.

There is only one senior leader I know who has no obvious faults at all.

His lack of weaknesses does not make me think him the most brilliant executive I've ever met. Instead it makes me think him flimsy and slightly untrustworthy. I'm sure there is a bad weakness in there somewhere, and it troubles me that I haven't yet found it.

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  • The BBC World Service's Business Daily programme features regular letters from contributors around the world

Of the 60 leaders, only two admitted to big faults.

Marcus Wareing owned up to one of the most common yet unmentionable sins - he doesn't listen.

But then he's a chef, and chefs aren't meant to be listening. They are meant to be making sure the iles flottantes are taken to table six - now!

My prize for honesty goes to Jon Moulton, the private equity tycoon, who has made enough money to be able to say what he likes.

His declared weakness is absolutely taboo, yet goes with the territory. Indeed, it is a weakness the other 59 leaders demonstrated through the self-serving answers they gave.

His stated fault - "excess of ego".

A selection of your comments:

Once asked what my weaknesses were, I told them: Whisky and salt and vinegar crisps. I got the job!

Tim George, Bristol

I was rejected in a job interview for being 'too honest'. I was told that I should have talked myself up more and been less open about my weaknesses. The approach mentioned in this article is what employers want and encourage, rightly or wrongly.

Tim, Reading

The three worst traits of chief executives are a lack of self-knowledge, a lack of self-knowledge and a quite extraordinary willingness to give themselves the benefit of the doubt. And of course repeating themselves!

Geoff R, Haarlem NL

Biggest weakness? Lust or gluttony, gluttony or lust? I can never decide between the two!

POF, London

Best answer I can think of: Q: "Describe your weaknesses" A: "Kryptonite".

Ros, Leamington Spa

I'm guessing that this is the top seven for successful CEOs...would love to see the top traits of failed CEOs -'great listener' and 'not afraid to delegate' etc.

Karen, London

I always think a smart reply to 'what is your biggest weakness?' is 'not knowing what my biggest weakness is'.

Sharon, Swindon

The thing about weaknesses is that there's almost always a corresponding strength which, if taken too far, results in said weakness. For example, most would consider 'good organisational skills' a positive thing. However, take it too far and you have a control freak. 'Confidence' taken too far turns into arrogance. Someone who's too eager to please is probably also afraid of conflict. And so on - you get the idea!

Alex, Edinburgh

One of my weaknesses is not being able to take the question about it seriously, even for the opportunity to be guileful or to show moxy. When I hear it, and I've heard it quite a lot in my interviews the past 20 years, it doesn't get better with age. I know the trick to answering it, and I usually go along with it, but inside, it's bile and mild apoplexy for the lie.

Matt Cockfield, Mandeville, LA

My weakness? Crippling modesty.

Paul J. Weighell, Purley, UK

Answering "working too hard" normally works better than the standard reply (taught in French schools!) of " I sometimes finding it difficult to motivate myself when working on my own because I so much prefer success in a team..."

Brian, Bordeaux, France

Here in the States we have what are known as "EEQ questions." They go a little like this: "Do you like to take frequent breaks during work when there is some thing else to be done?" or "Do you talk about your supervisor or fellow employees behind their backs?" One must answer on a sliding scale about how likely one is to do these things. My question to them is; has any one ever been honest with these questions?

William, Denver, CO, US

This is an extremely one sided view of CEO's. I coach In my company over 50 CEO's and while all of them have their faults (as we all do) I can tell you that the stereotypical CEO in this article is few and far between. Most are extremely caring about their people and actually do not have a huge ego. They work tirelessly to build their business, creating jobs, great products and opportunity along the way. Sure they are driven, but that's the only way to be successful. They do need to make tough unpopular decisions, but someone has to. Let's give them some credit!

CEO coach, California

I don't remember being asked what my faults were in a job interview, but I am asked that question during performance reviews and find it creepily Maoist. Self-criticism seems designed more for beating down my esteem than genuinely improving anything.

Jude Kirkham, Vancouver, Canada

My boss has all seven sins and doesn't know it - and I, like everyone else, don't dare send him a link to this article. I do wish he reads it somehow. By the way, even if someone would "speak truth to power", it wouldn't change a thing: they don't listen, remember!

Anonymous,

I would urge people to read the definition of the traits that define a sociopath and compare these to the traits outlined in this article. There is some very disturbing evidence to suggest that not only are our prisons full of these personality types but so are the boardrooms of many of our companies (CEOs included) and a large percentage of our Machiavellian politicians also fall into this particular subset. Sorry to put a dampener on what is intended as a fairly light hearted article but it makes for interesting further reading.

Jim Callaghan, Edinburgh

Self-made men who may be CEOs from large multi-nationals to your local window cleaning company will have: Drive, Determination and Vision. This means that unless the information is presented to them in a useful form, they may just not listen. Giving themselves benefit of doubt, is down to their drive and determination. You have to be optimistic to conquer all issues.

Andy Coolyam, London

The culture of perceived perfection pervades all levels of management. The ego of some individuals I have met borders on the certifiable. No one is allowed to be human and they all speak the same psycho babble. No wonder the coutry is in a mess. If you want further proof just look at the candidates on The Apprentice.

Ged Ritson, Liverpool

CEO behaviour? Alpha male. Look in the zoo's monkey house.

Bruce, Southampton

Control freaks - somebody must be in charge, the buck stops here. Vain - misunderstanding of importance of achievements. Ditherers - just considering all options before action. Bad at listening - avoiding information overload. Bullies - misunderstanding assertive management style. Avoid conflict to preserve more sensitive people's feelings. Small talk just clouds the issues.

John Anderson, UK

Isn't the idea that the interviewee demonstrates, by citing a 'faux fault', that they are well briefed and ahead of the game? e.g. self being interviewed for direct command in major airline: "I get impatient with departure delays." Load of tosh but the pens scribbled and I got the job.

Ian, Marlow

Anonymous... Print out article (several times) and leave it lying about...

Ian, Romford

CEOs have boundless energy and resilience, but it's completely fortuitous if they're blessed with vision as well. By the way, surprised no-one's mentioned "impatience" yet.

Dan, Essex

Imagine a leader who was not vain, did not care about his image and the image of the business - need I say more? Imagine leaders who listened to all the nonsense and unsupported blabber which comes from 500 directions every single day. Bullying is never good, I must say, but nevertheless this is something of a strength, especially if you bully your suppliers, competitors and make your business more profit. If a few souls get hurt in the process I would say that was a acceptable sacrifice. Leadership is what it says on the tin.

Mark, London

I once interviewed someone for a role and asked what their biggest weakness was. The answer... "paranoia". OK then...

Ben Roles, UK

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