To guard against recklessness and folly—even at the lower reaches of executive life—follow these rules:
Keep your life simple. Are you greedy? Do you want more, even when you don’t need it? Combat greediness by giving something back to society. Asked how he handles wealth and power, Warren Buffett says, “I live now the way I lived 30 years ago.” Make coffee in the company kitchen. Talk with your customers every week.
Spotlight your flaws. Are you sometimes wrong but never in doubt? Take yourself down a few pegs. Try to fix your flaws, take responsibility for them, and especially, joke about them.
Get real. The higher you fly, the less resistance you’ll encounter, so don’t rely on your regular advisers. Pull aside a smart, crusty, front-line employee and pitch a wild idea to see how he or she responds. If you’re lucky, you’ll develop your own Doubting Thomas who will give you an honest assessment. Never shut down somebody who is trying to alert you to a problem. Encourage the naysayers. Think hard about how you react to the bearers of bad news.
Look ahead. In organizations headed for disaster, the leader loses sight of the big picture and spends most of the time plugging holes, papering over cracks and staving off hard blows. While it’s good to attend to details, it’s bad if you’re constantly spinning bad news and putting out fires.
Reflect more. Step back and take a time-out, preferably every day. Getting ahead in the world changes people, but almost none of us is willing to admit that it may happen to us. Strive to read yourself as well as you read others. If you can’t imagine yourself ever falling from grace, it may be more likely that you will.
— Adapted from “The Harder They Fall,” Roderick M. Kramer, Harvard Business Review.