What is going on at McDonald’s? Their current CEO, Chris Kempczinski, just got himself into very hot water by sending a blindingly inappropriate and mean-spirited text to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Commenting on the shooting deaths of two Chicago teenagers, he wrote, “With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say.” Read that again – he knew he was writing something unacceptable, and he sent the text anyway – to a major public figure! 

Chris isn’t the first McDonald’s CEO to show a shocking lack of judgement. His predecessor, Steve Easterbrook, was fired for engaging in sexual relationships with several of his employees and then concealing the evidence.

I advise CEOs, I coach potential CEOs, and I help companies select their CEOs. I understand both the challenges and the rewards of this high-stress, high-visibility role. I know the skills and personal qualities that predict success for CEOs. And I’m also aware of the potential derailers that can sabotage that success. 

In all my years of working with CEOs, I have never felt the need to advise them, “Don’t send stupid, racially-insensitive texts to public figures, and by the way, keep your hands off your employees.” 

Understanding why CEOs fail in such head-slapping ways

As people rise through the ranks of big corporations, I do counsel them to be increasingly intentional about their public presentation. I know of cases where a flippant, off-hand remark by a senior executive has damaged the organization and/or tanked the leader’s career. It requires great self-discipline to be a great leader.      

My clients and I also talk about being mindful of sexual boundaries and sensitive to others’ feelings and reactions. Much of this is good manners, respect, and empathy, all of which are very valuable qualities for a CEO. Does that mean a senior leader never has feelings of sexual attraction for one of his/her employees? Of course not. Once again, it takes discipline to manage those feelings appropriately.

I have no doubt that both Mr. Easterbrook and Mr. Kempczinski are very talented senior executives. They would not have been promoted to such a prominent and powerful role unless they possessed outstanding leadership qualities. Perhaps Mr. Kempczinski will be able to ride out this crisis. But sooner or later, McDonald’s will be selecting its next CEO. 

I would advise the selection team to put much more emphasis on character, emotional maturity, and self-discipline as they evaluate the next round of candidates.

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