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The Five Failures of Leadership

How do I lead thee? Let me count the ways! (apologies to William Shakespeare) Everyone is making lists these days about leadership. John Maxwell has The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Partick Lencioni has The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and then there is the 29 Leadership Secrets From Jack Welch. (What’s with the “secret” stuff? Why should leadership be secret? Do they think leadership is only for the privileged few?) Even Jim Collins has put together Five Levels of Leadership, as described in his best-selling classic book, Good to Great. So, I’ve put together two lists. This one is “The Five Failures of Leadership”, and the next blog will describe “The Five Foundations for Effective Leadership”. I base these two lists on my experience over the past 35 years of working closely with CEOs and leadership teams in a variety of industries; nuclear power, retail, defense manufacturing, telecoms, city councils and government bodies, among others. They might be a little different from the normal academic terminology, but hang in there. So, here is my list of The Five Failures of Leadership:

1. “Smoking your own exhaust!” I put this as number one since I have seen it so many times and also seen the damage it can do, to a business and its people. What I mean by “smoking your own exhaust” is the erroneous belief that somehow, just because you now have the title or position of leader that your ideas, your thoughts, your insights, your knowledge, your talent (etc.) is superior to those in your company. Something weird happens when an individual is promoted to the lofty position of CEO or “leader”. They somehow fall in to the trap that they must be great or at least “better than the others” and therefore have the best ideas and insights. As a result, this belief leads to a reluctance to really listen to ideas from others and a proclivity to do most of the talking, which often turns into pontificating. As a result, good ideas don’t get easily surfaced and good people either tune out or leave. "The good Lord gave us two ears and one mouth and expects us to use them in that proportion." ~sayings from my mother 2. Waiting too long to make a decision. "Hope is not a strategy." ~Michael Bloomberg

There is a common belief in business (and in relationships as well) that things will get better if we just wait a while. Which ultimately leads to wait and hope. Well, the truth is, “Things don’t get better if you wait, they get worse.” The job of a leader is to lead! Anyone can wait and see, that’s easy. What is difficult is taking action; to either replace a failing executive, conduct a root cause analysis, pull the funding and kill the project. A decision gets things moving and brings in new information, which can then be used to better understand the situation. Decisions and actions always bring in new information, new opportunities, new insights into the situation. With more and better information, you can make better decisions. 3. Tolerating bad behavior in executives and managers.

Do as I say, not do as I do!

Over the years I have come to believe strongly, based on evidence, that “organisations are shadows of their leaders”. In other words, the behaviour of the senior leaders, individually and collectively, acts as a template (set of informal guidelines) that is then copied, or mirrored, by employees. All employees watch the behaviour of their leaders in order to figure out what is acceptable and how to get ahead. If the bosses bad mouth each other and don’t share information, how many employees and middle managers are going to buck that? So, when a CEO sees executives acting badly, against the stated values and groundrules of the company, and does nothing about it, it is seen as a “sanction”; either there is a double standard in the company (the beginning of a very unhealthy culture) or that values and stated behaviours are not really important. Leadership is more than just a big title, it comes with a role model obligation as well. Real leaders don’t look away, the get in your face about bad behaviour. “I guess the company values aren’t important after all.”

4. Believing in the “Super Stars = Super Team” myth. One of the great myths of team effectiveness is that all one has to do to create a Leaders-Fail1winning team is hire the best superstars and let them get on with it. After all, they are the experts. But it doesn’t always work like that. Hiring a collection of superstars with great track records and polished CVs does not always create a winning team. Just look at professional football in the UK for example. A team full of highly paid superstars may be able to draw large crowds to games and demand higher fees to televise their games, but they don’t automatically win a majority of games. There is a difference between being able to play the game expertly and being able to play the game expertly together. The leadership failure here is two-fold. First believing that superstars equal super team, and secondly for not behaving as a hands-on coach to guide the team towards collective capabilities and working together. 5. Lowering the hurdles.

Goal-setting is an imperfect science at best and everyone knows that we often set big goals out of optimism more than insight. Goals should be tough and stretch, as that is the only way to keep ahead of the competition and deliver value. But big goals are difficult, messy, and don’t always “play nice” or follow the step-by-step plans laid out. Lots of things, both external and internal, get in the way and put up significant barriers to goal achievement. We call this a Breakdown, because in one way or another the executive accountable is not delivering on the performance commitment and something is getting in the way. No one sets out to under-perform, so we must assume there is either a physical or mental barrier, or a combination of the two. There are two ways of dealing with Goal Breakdowns. Too often, leaders take the easy way out and decide that, since the team is “working hard”, the best course of action is to shift the objective or revise the goal. The fact is, all change is hard and all new initiatives face technical and business difficulties, as well as human resistance to change. It’s supposed to be hard, otherwise we would have done it already and it wouldn’t really be a Breakthrough, but just an incremental improvement. A major failure of leadership is to “buy in” to the excuses and stories that naturally rise up when difficult goals are falling behind plan. “You don’t understand, the market is not the same. I just don’t have enough resources. We need to drop back and study the situation again. etc.” But when a leader holds fast and encourages the executive and the team to “find a solution”, to be innovative, to get a different perspective, they are helping the team move from Breakdown to Breakthrough. Although you may face setbacks, change, crisis, and tough times, you are still accountable for meeting your goals. ~ Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 astronaut

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