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CEO Coach Robinson Blog # Four- a CEO story of negative contagion

by jeremy.robinson on December 21, 2009

Space Shuttle Challenger launches on STS-7.
Image via Wikipedia

This is a good time of year to re-tell a story about negative contagion and losing your moral compass.  This, the true story of a CEO being coached by a colleague of mine a number of years ago.  During this holiday season, and also in light of the recent financial crisis, you may find the story instructive.

It’s a good example of what I call negative contagion- how all of us- leader, follower, key talent, consultant, and coach alike- can become influenced by the worst attributes of another’s behavior (or the worst aspects of the culture surrounding us.) This negative contagion can also represent the worst attributes our own behavior.  (Yes, people can be positively and negatively emotionally contagious to themselves.)

When my colleague told me this story, I was speechless.

I’m still not sure what I would have said to this CEO, as his coach.  Maybe it would have been something like, “X, I can see you’re under an inordinate amount of pressure. We should have a conversation about the pressure you’re under.  I’m not sure you’re even clear what you just said sounded like to another person.  In any case, this helps clarify

some of the work I’d like us to delve into regarding your priorities and values.”

If you were his coach, what would you have said?

Would you have said, “Surely, you’ve got to be kidding?”

Here’s the story:

The Coach was meeting with the CEO of XYZ Company that manufactured equipment for the NASA program. It was during a crisis time as the Space Shuttle Challenger had just gone down killing six people. The problem was diagnosed with the O rings of the Launch Rocket.  The company in question was responsible for the manufacture of the O-rings.

The Coach was helping the CEO get through round the clock discussions to fix the O ring problem.  During a quiet moment during this difficult time, the Coach turned to the CEO and asked him how he was doing.

CEO said, “I’m glad you asked me that because last night I woke up in the middle of the night totally startled with this difficult thought.”

“What was it?” the Coach asked sympathetically.

“I realized the stock had fallen ten points as a result of this,” the CEO declared.  “I was in a panic”

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