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1 in 10 CEOs lack critical confidant

08 Apr 2013


1797One in 10 CEOs say they lack someone to tell them hard truths and challenge their viewpoint, according to research by evolutionary psychologist and organisational behaviour expert Professor Nigel Nicholson.



Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and author of new book The ‘I’ of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing (Jossey-Bass, 2013), has conducted a study, which finds that one in 10 CEOs lack this critical leader relationship. An even larger number avoid confiding in anyone inside their organisation because they have no boss to turn to and lack sufficient trust in all other professional relationships.

Professor Nicholson explains: “We are all a little wary of whom we bare our souls to, and in the minds of many executives in low-trust environments is the idea that the higher you ascend the ladder of success, the more you have to watch your back and be circumspect in what you reveal.”

However, having to go outside of the organisation to establish this relationship has a number of benefits, says Professor Nicholson: “This turns out to be where many of the most productive Critical Leadership Relationships reside: such people as former bosses, buddies and trusted advisors.

“Outsiders may lack company insights and contextual knowledge, but they are often the best fitted to tell hard truths, tolerate strong emotions and to confront the leader with the contrarian view.”

The lateral peer relationships, which have flourished in the flat organisational structures of high-tech and information industries, suffer from the politics of competition in traditional bureaucracies.

Powerful leaders’ over-reliance on the backup of an ops person further down the ladder, such as a legal expert, can also be a fatal flaw as it was in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2011/12 when it was engulfed in the phone-hacking scandal, suggests Professor Nicholson.

Looking upward for the Critical Leader Relationship has had some success, particularly in family firms where many a highly successful partnership has been formed between a non-family CEO and a family non-executive Chairman of a family Chair and non-family CEO. “However”, warns Professor Nicholson, “having a Critical Leader Relationship with your boss may not be a brilliant idea if the give and take are grossly unequal.”

Mentoring was devised to get around some of these difficulties, but going beyond the company walls and opting for spontaneous mutual selection may prove the best strategy for today’s leaders, says Professor Nicholson.

What leaders need from these relationships is highly individualised. For example, for a leader dealing with human complexities, alliances and cultural divisions, feedback and insight will be at a premium. For a leader in media, consultancy or the arts who wants to lead innovation and change however, challenge will be a prime need.

Professor Nicholson, who advocates that leaders spend time identifying the precise type of support that will help realise their goals, sets out the fundamental ground rules for a successful relationship in his new book, which combines a simple framework for leaders at every level, with penetrating insights into the thornier challenges of leadership.


  • Agree to meet again – put it in the diary and protect it

  • All social interactions are regulated by implicit conventions and unspoken rules. For the benefits to be part of the fabric of a leader’s life, understandings and practices must be clear.

  • Make the intention and goal explicit

  • Reciprocate and share time. The encounter will get to a deeper level and be mutually reinforcing if both parties get benefits.

  • Take it in turns to talk and listen; either within a single session or over time

  • Know when you are the coach and the coached. As the coach, question: the scope, scale and specificity of goals, the reality of context, actors and processes and the options and willingness for different courses of action.

  • Maintain absolute confidentiality


This is essential to protect this high-trust relationship.

Professor Nicholson will also be in conversation with Ian, Lord Blair of Boughton, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police on the theme Leadership: A covenant of trust?, at London Business School’s Global Leadership Summit in the heart of the City on Monday 20 May 2013.