3 Major Ways CEOs Self-Sabotage (And How to Avoid Them)

It can be difficult to be a CEO in today’s day and age. There are countless obstacles that can hinder you and your goals, not to mention the internal struggles you can face when in such a position.

As Vistage Master Chair, I’ve worked with many CEOs over the years. And, as a retired CEO myself, I have personal experience with the challenges that business leaders face, both internally and externally, in addition to knowledge on how to both avoid and overcome them.

Shirzad Chamine is a New York Times bestselling author of “Positive Intelligence,” which has been translated into over 20 different languages. He is also a Stanford lecturer, has trained faculty at Stanford and Yale business schools, and has been the CEO of the largest coach training organization in the world. In his career, he has coached hundreds of CEOs and their executive teams.

According to Shirzad, every CEO actively sabotages their own wellness, performance, and relationships every single day. Not only this, but every single person in their organization, and in their families, does the same thing, every day.

The worst part is that, as the leader of your organization, your self-sabotage intensifies the self-sabotage of everybody else in your organization. In other words, because of your position, your self-sabotage has a multiplier effect, and it really adds up. However, it is possible to avoid these three major ways that CEOs self-sabotage.

Through the use of Factor Analysis Research, it has been found that there are only ten negative mental patterns. Each of these mental patterns, or Saboteurs, can be the cause of self-sabotage. Most people have a few Saboteurs, rather than just one. The Saboteurs occur in the brainstem and the limbic system, and they motivate you through negative emotions like fear, stress, anger, guilt, shame, and insecurity.

It is important for business leaders hoping to reduce their Saboteurs to think about how often they are motivated by these negative emotions. For example, how much of what you do is because of a fear of rejection, a fear of failure, a fear of poverty, or a fear of something similar?


On the other hand, there are five positive mental patterns. These mental patterns, or Sage powers, are what benefit you. The five Sage powers are empathize, explore, innovate, navigate, and activate. The Sage powers occur in the middle prefrontal cortex and the empathy circuitry, and they motivate you through positive emotions like empathy, curiosity, creativity, passion, and purpose.

The key difference between the Saboteurs and the Sages is that, if you motivate yourself or others through Saboteurs, you might generate some real success but you will not generate happiness. However, if you motivate yourself and others through the use of the Sage powers, you will generate not only your highest level of success, but also will generate and sustain happiness.

The three-step process is the best way to avoid self-sabotage. This process involves intercepting the Saboteurs. Stopping these negative thoughts before they become more serious can prevent self-sabotage, as they are no longer able to run your mind. Saboteurs are helpful, but only for one second, as they act as an alert signal. Remaining in negative emotions hurts your ability to see clearly and react appropriately.

By taking a test and isolating your top Saboteurs, you can determine which areas of your life need improvement. The number one Saboteur is the Judge, which centers upon anxiety, guilt, resentment, and feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. The Judge makes you feel as though you will never be enough. However, by stopping this Saboteur, you can make room for the Sage power, which will help you be happy with the life you have.

Some other examples of powerful Saboteurs are the Avoider, the Controller, the Hyper-Achiever, the Pleaser, and the Stickler. These Saboteurs can involve feelings of frustration, aloofness, the need to chase fulfillment, emotional numbness, or the need to be liked.

The second step is to power up the Sage brain. This means activating the area of the brain where the Sage occurs, in order to enhance its ability to help you. This can only be done after intercepting the Saboteurs. Otherwise, the area of the brain responsible for the existence of the Saboteurs will be more influential.

Powering up the Sage brain can be done through PQ reps. PQ, or positive intelligence, is a measure of mental fitness. PQ reps are exercises in which you strengthen your positive intelligence, and therefore strengthen your Sage powers. These PQ reps are both easy to do and to remember.

The third and final step of this process is to choose the Sage response. Choosing the Sage response, as opposed to the Saboteur response, allows you to perform better, feel better, and create better relationships. This negates the self-sabotage being done every day regarding wellness, performance, and relationships.

The Sage operates from the Sage perspective, which is that every outcome of circumstance can be turned into a gift and opportunity. This perspective might seem impossible for someone who is controlled by their Saboteurs, but once the three-steps have been employed, you will find that it is indeed possible to view challenges as opportunities for growth rather than for failure.

Bottom Line:

There are three major ways CEOs self-sabotage — regarding wellness, performance, and relationships. Too often, these CEOs allow their Saboteurs to run their minds. However, by employing the three-step process and prioritizing the Sage powers over the Saboteurs, CEOs can learn to avoid these pitfalls.

As a result of Shirzad Chamine’s work, in addition to my NYC Vistage groups, CEOs can learn to make the most of their challenges and avoid self-sabotaging behaviors, in order to become even more successful.