If you are a sucker for great leadership movies like I am — “Invictus,” “Coach Carter” and “Moneyball,” just to name a few — it’s easy to assume that all leaders embody the same qualities as those in the movies.

After all, who hasn’t idealized business leaders to be strong, confident, make tough decisions and stand their ground no matter what? While those leaders do exist, they are a minority. In working with leaders for 30 years, I have found that the reality is shockingly different.

Most leaders take on their roles with the greatest of positive intentions. Yet, along the way, they get lost. Not by conscious choice. Rather they are derailed by an underlying dysfunctional pattern called co-dependency.

Co-dependency is a set of beliefs and behaviors that prevent individuals from having healthy, mutually beneficial relationships. At first glance, the term “co-dependent leader” seems like an oxymoron, yet this dysfunctional behavioral pattern is rampant within the business world.

The question is: Why does leadership co-dependency go undetected?

Let’s look at the top 3 reasons why.

  1. Co-dependent behaviors get masked by a company’s values and practices. On the surface, these values and practices seem healthy — teamwork, employee engagement and customer service, among others. It’s not the values or practices in themselves that are the issue. It is the thinking and beliefs driving them that determine whether the values are healthy or a cover-up for co-dependency.
  2. Leaders tend to focus on the tangible, at expense of the intangible, aspects within their organizations. The “hard” aspects of business — strategy, systems and metrics — often trump the intangible aspects. Yet the intangibles — beliefs, emotions and values — drive the “bus.” They drive every action, behavior and decision that affect results. Because co-dependent leadership falls within the realm of the intangibles, it goes undetected.
  3. Leaders feel the pressure to maintain a strong, “have it all together” facade for credibility with employees and customers. Doing so prevents leadership awareness about unhealthy behavioral patterns and the underlying factors driving them. Plus, co-dependent leaders stuff down their insecurities, fears and anxieties. This perpetuates the co-dependency cycle.

7 clues you could be a co-dependent leader

At the heart of all co-dependent leadership is a weak sense of self developed in childhood. That weak identity manifests in seven classic ways at a leadership level.

1. Low self-esteem. Leaders with healthy self esteem feel in charge of their outcomes. They take responsibility for the consequences of their choices and behaviors, positive or negative. On the other hand, co-dependent leaders have others’ esteem. Their sense of worth comes from what others think and feel about them. It’s painful for co-dependent leaders to take responsibility. As a result, they resist “owning” their leadership role, delegating and holding themselves and others accountable.

Values masking low self-esteem: Humility, selfless/servant leadership

2. High need for power and control. Healthy leadership power means having choices and the ability to influence one’s environment and others toward a common goal. As a co-dependent leader, however, that need for control and power can go into over-drive to feel secure and safe. Bossiness, blaming others and stifling others’ ideas are telltale signs.

The paradox is that over-exertion of power stems from a leader’s sense of powerlessness with outside forces.

Values masking over-control: Discipline, order, rigor

3. People-pleasing and inability to say “no.” It’s normal for a leader to want to help peers and team members because you care about them.

However, as a co-dependent leader, you need others to think of you as a “nice person” because your sense of self depends on it. You go out of your way to accommodate others’ needs and sacrifice your own to feel good about yourself. It’s an attempt to protect yourself from painful consequences. The thought of being rejected or abandoned by your “work tribe” is terrifying to your sense of self.

Examples of people-pleasing behaviors include a high tolerance for underperformance and giving into customer demands at the cost of your own profits, values and performance needs.

Values masking people pleasing: Customer service, employee engagement, teamwork

4. Boundary issues Boundaries are critical in healthy relationships. They are like imaginary lines between you and others. Leaders with healthy boundaries know where responsibility and ownership end and begin for a problem, goal or outcome.

For co-dependent leaders, those imaginary lines are blurry — either nonexistent or too rigid. Without “external” boundaries, a leader’s identity becomes enmeshed with others — such as feeling responsible for employees’ happiness.

Without “internal” boundaries, a leader will experience an out-of-control schedule, excessive negative thoughts and emotions and lack of self-care.

Values masking poor boundaries: Sense of family, customer satisfaction, trust

5. Reactivity. A consequence of poor leadership boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. As a co-dependent leader, you take responsibility for others’ emotions, yet don’t take responsibility for your own.

If a peer, employee or customer says something that upsets you, you take it as a personal attack. You either believe them or become defensive. Either way, you go into victim mode.

Values masking reactivity: Agility, speed, responsiveness

6. Caretaking. “Caring about” others is healthy leadership. “Caring for” is dysfunctional and disempowering. When you engage in leadership caretaking, you are doing for your employees what they can do for themselves. You feel responsible to take care of their problems and save them from pain.

You put employee needs before business needs, have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for them and prevent employees from growing into empowering successful contributors of the company.

Values masking caretaking: Concern for employees’ welfare; caring

7. Avoiding conflict. Self-esteem is essential for leaders to assert their thoughts, feelings and needs while welcoming others to do the same. For such leaders, conflict is a normal part of relationships.

In contrast, co-dependent leaders avoid conflict at all costs, resulting in emotionally dishonest relationships with their team and peers. Because of poor role models in life, such leaders grew up believing that conflict is bad, painful and traumatic. The end result is status quo thinking, compromised decision making and a false sense of team work.

Values masking conflict avoidance: Harmony, collaboration, trust

While we all have exhibited the above behaviors to some extent, for the co-dependent leader, these patterns are all-consuming. They don’t know how else to be.

Growth, profits and a healthy culture can be yours by addressing co-dependent leadership. Because co-dependent leadership has been so prevalent in my clients’ companies, I developed exercises for leadership teams to see for themselves the high cost of this dysfunctional pattern within their organization.

For example, I have had each leader identify one situation where they said “yes” when “no” (or setting boundaries) would have been healthier and more profitable. They must include hard and soft costs and then give an estimated total cost to the bottom line.

Even for a single situation for one leader, the costs went as high as millions. Multiply that across every leader and every situation when this dysfunctional pattern has shown up and the costs to the company become staggering.

What symptoms do you identify with? Which are prevalent within your company? What is co-dependent leadership costing your company?

Denise Corcoran helps growth-seeking companies develop game-changing leadership teams and organizations that drive double- and triple-digit growth … by design. Her company — The Empowered Business — is one of the few companies providing whole brain, strategic solutions for unleashing leadership and organizational potential that conventional methods can’t achieve. Learn how to master your inner game of leadership by downloading the free report “Wired to Win Big.” Connect with Corcoran at her blog, LinkedIn, Twitter or via e-mail.

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