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Leadership Thought #468 – The Biggest Mistake Leaders Make

The biggest mistake leaders make is to think it is all about them.   They believe that success or failure is a direct result of their own personal behavior rather than a team effort.  Show me a successful leader and I will show you a person surrounded by good people who each do their own jobs exceedingly well.  While it is common practice in this country to celebrate the individual, no one builds a high performing organization by themselves.  This doesn’t mean that the leader isn’t an essential ingredient; however, he/she needs other ingredients to complete the recipe.

We all have strengths and weaknesses.  There are situations in which we will naturally thrive and others where we will inevitably struggle.  A leader’s job is to maximize the organizational benefits of their talents while minimizing the impact of their weaknesses.  The best way to mitigate individual limitations is to seek out other people who supplement our own deficiencies. Visionary leaders often need colleagues who excel at focus and implementation.  Detail-oriented people often require team members who push them to be more decisive and think outside of the box.  Someone who has great people skills may lose sight of harsh business realities.  If you’ve worked for any considerable amount of time, you will notice that your favorite leaders often knew where they were lacking and made sure they dealt with this reality rather than ignored or overcompensated for it.

In addition, there are limits to what any one person can physically accomplish.  You can only personally sell so much or manage a finite number of clients.   No one person has the market cornered on good ideas.  As smart as you may be, you won’t have the requisite knowledge to effectively address every issue that pops up.  Moreover, there are only so many hours in a day. Anyone who pushes too hard for too long will burnout and start making bad decisions.   The first growth roadblock for most businesses is when they’ve exhausted the professional capability of the leader.  Sadly, many companies don’t get too far beyond this point due to ego issues and/or short-sightedness.

A leader’s job is not to be a superman or superwoman, who can personally overcome any obstacle strewn in their path.  Their job is to build organizational resilience through teamwork, shared commitment and sacrifice, building and leveraging the talent base available to the company, establishing critical operational redundancies, and maintaining the ongoing pursuit of common objectives (despite obstacles).  If you take a prolonged vacation, the business shouldn’t fall apart. Employees shouldn’t panic at the first sign of a crisis and look to your strong leadership to solve all the tough problems.  The biggest mistake is to place yourself at the center of the organizational universe and view others as simply inhabiting your orbit.  Instead see yourself as part of a constellation of stars serving a more important purpose.

 

Leadership Thought #467 – Leaders Should Listen More Than They Talk

Over the years I’ve noticed that it is inexperienced or mediocre leaders who feel like they have to dominate all conversations.  It’s almost as if what anyone else has to say has limited or no value and it is only their opinion that counts.  We’ve all been in meetings where there is that one person who simply will not be quiet and yield the floor to others.  They are also often prone to interrupting their colleagues before they can finish their thoughts and using obvious body language when the center of attention isn’t focused on them. This is bad enough when it is a peer but even worse when it is the actual leader of the group.  Nobody likes a “know it all.”

I have a colleague who is fond of saying that “most people are preparing to talk rather than listening.”  I must admit to catching myself in this mode more often than I would like.  You start to block out or only partially listen to what others are saying and wait for your chance to interject and share your thoughts on the topic at hand.  As a result you often miss important information, repeat what someone else has already said and de-motivate the other party to the conversation to continue engaging.  It is a vicious cycle and ultimately you end up providing a monologue to a disinterested audience.   When people check out on what you are saying as a leader, you are in trouble.

Leaders have the responsibility to foster rigorous debate and dialogue not inhibit it.  Your goal is to make the right decisions and come up with the best solutions.  The more people who participate in this process the better.  The only real way to do this is to ask good questions and listen intentionally to what other are saying.  You need to facilitate the conversation rather than just lead it.  No one person has the market cornered on good ideas.  The loudest person in the room is rarely the most intelligent; they just crave attention.  In my experience, a major reason why businesses don’t grow is because the leader feels he/she has to have all the answers rather than building a team of competent professionals and leveraging the skills/experience of those around them.

When I was a kid my mom used to often say, “Less is more.”  It took me way too long to figure out what she meant.  It’s not about how much you say, but what you are actually saying.  And, if you want people to listen to you, you need to listen to them.   The best leaders I now pick their spots.  They do their best to take it all in and only contribute when they feel they can add value or need to move things along.  If you are thoughtful about when you speak, people tend to pay attention.  If your ego pushes you to dominate conversations, then don’t be surprised if you find leadership to be a lonely place and continued success a hard nut to crack.

There Is Much To Learn From Saint Patrick

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You don’t have to be Catholic to admire and appreciate the life of St. Patrick – the Patron Saint of Ireland.  He was born more than 1,600 years ago but his memory still lives on.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that his holiday is often a day of much fanfare and celebration for people of Irish background.  Saint Patrick himself was known to enjoy a drink or two.  However the celebratory aspect of the day should not overshadow the remarkable life and good works of the man.

As a teenager of wealth and privilege he was kidnapped and taken from his adopted home of Scotland (his parents were originally from Rome) bought to Ireland and sold into slavery.  At the age of 20 he escaped his bondage and found his way back home only to volunteer to return again to Ireland in his 30s as an ordained priest on a missionary quest. He spent the remainder of his life spreading his beliefs throughout the country and converting people from all walks of life.  It’s worth noting that his journey was not an easy one and he was often imprisoned and beaten because of the courage of his convictions and success of his work.

There is much to learn from the life of Saint Patrick including the following:

  • No matter what happens to you don’t forsake hope or allow yourself to be fully defined by your adverse circumstances;
  • A life of privilege is meaningless unless you can anchor it to something more profound and “bigger” than yourself;
  • Committing yourself to a cause you believe in is not for the feint of heart and requires courage and persistence;
  • You can accomplish great things in life if you truly believe in what you are doing and your values align with your work;
  • Confront your fears head on and grow because of (not in spite of)  your bad experiences;
  • Speak out when you see and injustice and help others whenever you can (even if there is a price to pay for this behavior);
  • A life of significance is the result of diligent daily effort.

To my knowledge Saint Patrick was never officially canonized by the Vatican but he is still on the list of saints.  Sometimes a life’s work stands on its own.  If and when you raise a glass in toast this weekend, I encourage to consider toasting Saint Patrick.  He was a special man who accomplished great things despite many difficulties and hardships.  He put the welfare of others ahead of his own and literally was the spark that transformed the religious faith of a nation.

Leadership Thought #466 – Do You Have A Plan?

I am regularly surprised by how many business owners/leaders operate without a plan.  They simply make it up as they go along.  I guess if you don’t know where you are going; any road will take you there.  I sometimes wonder if this mindset is purposeful.  It’s hard to hold someone accountable (including yourself) if there are no real markers for success.  You can also apply any possible excuse to explain why the business isn’t more successful. 

Without a plan your business is a like a tumbleweed blowing in the wind. You don’t know where it will end up and the course it takes to get there is subject to the whims of other forces.  Unfocused effort only ever leads to frustration, miscommunication, wasted effort, poor financial decision making, unnecessary stress and less than optimal results.

As a leader, you need to plan for the following:

  • How you will stay on top of industry trends and changes;
  • How your business will compete in your market in both the short and long term;
  • How you will stay connected to your existing clients and anticipate/meet their needs;
  • Who you will target with your marketing and sales efforts and how you will make this happen;
  • What constitutes financial success and how you will manage to these outcomes;
  • How you will manage the natural risks inherent to your business/industry;
  • How you will manage growth while maintaining consistent effective operations;
  • How you will attract and retain the talent required to staff your business;
  • How you will plan for contingencies should you greatly exceed or fall below your business expectations.

Leadership is hard work.  You are paid to think not just do.  Your people look to you for focus and direction. Without a plan they will stumble about and fill in the blanks on their own.  Each person will have their own definition of what’s important and don’t be surprised if this is often different from what you want.  The first person you need to hold accountable is yourself.  Success is rarely ever an accident.  You need to have a plan on where you want to go, if you want to have a decent chance of getting there.

Leadership Thought #465 – Everyone Is A Critic

When you lead others, everyone is a critic to some degree.  It’s next to impossible to be fully aligned with another person 100% of the time.  As a leader, knowing this, you can’t fall into the trap of listening to every dissenting voice. The path to mediocrity is littered with individuals who gave up their leadership power unnecessarily and allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others.  This doesn’t mean you avoid soliciting feedback, quite the contrary, but you need to be able to filter this feedback and trust your own judgment.  The world looks much different when you are actually accountable for your decisions.  It’s easy to be an expert when you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

You can’t browse the internet, pick-up a newspaper, watch TV or listen to radio without being bombarded by the opinions of so called experts.  In an office environment, you can multiply this by the number of one-off conversations that take place during the course of any given day.   In my line of work, I’ve encountered many middle managers, stuck in their careers, who often believe they are the brightest person in the room.   While they may in fact be highly intelligent (not always the case), they often lack the true courage of their convictions.  It is much easier to be an expert on the sidelines or in the stands than run the risk of actually competing on the field.  It takes minimal energy to snipe behind someone’s back as opposed to thoughtfully advocating for your position and effectively dealing with alternative points of view.

This morning I listened or read many different opinions on how President Obama should deal with Russia’s incursion into the Crimea.  Of course, many of these people aren’t foreign policy experts or have any real inside understanding of the current geopolitical power dynamics involved.  Have you every noticed that most talking heads haven’t actually ever run anything or achieved any significant level of significant professional accomplishment in the field they are commenting on?  They often stalled within the system they are now commenting on.  Even worse are the journalists/media personalities who wax and wane on every topic as they are actually qualified to do so.  They never miss an opportunity to stir up discontent and/or tell us everything wrong with what the leader or institution in question is doing.  Rarely, if ever, do they provide a thoughtful or realistic alternative.  If you are not accountable you can say anything.  We, the public, love this because it validates our own predisposition to form strong opinions without the facts or a selective understanding of only the facts that support our own often ideological position.  Thinking before acting is hard work and many of us prefer shortcuts instead.

Don’t get me wrong; some level of criticism is healthy.  No one is above reproach especially in a free and democratic society.  Weak leaders crush dissent.  They feel threatened when someone disagrees with them.  Just look at Putin. To confuse his weakness with strength is a mistake.  Leaders should welcome different opinions and perspectives. Feedback is essential for innovation and growth.  However, leaders also need to be able to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; the informed thoughts from the misinformed ones; those positions that have the best interest of the organization/institution at heart versus those are personally motivated.  Making the right decision isn’t always easy.  Standing your ground in the face of opposition will test your professional mettle.  Everyone is a critic.  But also remember, that only a much smaller number of us ever risk the criticism in the first place.

Leadership Thought #464 – Embrace What Makes You Special

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to be what you are not.  There are a lot of books out there that tell you that you can be anything you want to be, but this simply is not true.  No matter how hard I try, there are certain things I just can’t do or won’t be able to do well.  It has saddened me to watch so many people regularly set themselves up for failure with unrealistic expectations about what is possible for them and others.  Instead of trying to force yourself into a role/career/opportunity that isn’t right for you, why not embrace who you are and what makes you special and tap into that?

I firmly believe that each one of us is born with gifts and unique talents we can share with others and excel at. Unfortunately, at an early age we are thrust into an educational/social system that pushes us to conform and defines what success within this system should look like.  And like most ingrained systems, the model is outdated and serving the purpose of prior generations. Very early on life we are taught that there are winners and losers and that winning requires certain characteristics and attributes that only a select few possess.  Moreover, the path towards achievement is narrowly defined and more often than not materialistic in nature.  I believe this partially explains our dysfunctional societal obsession with celebrity and wealth.  Don’t buy into it!

One of things I marvel at in life is how different we all are from one another.  Sure, there are obvious physical similarities, but in the course of any given day I meet people who blow me away with their individuality.  Some people can fix anything with little guidance; others can solve complex mathematical problems in their head, while others are quick on their feet and handle any social situation.  I’ve witnessed creative minds that operate on a level I can’t even fathom.  Some people thrive under stress while others fall apart.  Science is fun for some people and a bore for others.  There are people who are so physically gifted they make any athletic activity look smooth and easy while others stumble attempting the most basic physical task.  There are people who look for the spotlight and others who run from it.  Some people like to lead while many more want nothing to do with it.  Our differences are vast and wonderful. None of the above is good or bad; it just makes you who you are.  And, the more we try and put ourselves in situations where we are pre-programmed to thrive, the happier we will be.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about a state of being called “flow” where you feel perfectly aligned with what you are doing.  Time seems to stand still, you feel an innate sense of joy and your efforts feel almost effortless.  At this moment you are one with nature and your own being.  We’ve all experienced these moments, but sadly they are usually few and far between.  Reality quickly returns and we are back on the treadmill of life, trying to survive our own existence by doing what we feel we should be doing.  I’ve never like the word “should.”  Of course there are family and civic responsibilities we must attend to, however, this is only part of who we are, not all of it.  I’ve been privileged to experience a number of people who have followed what Joseph Campbell termed their “bliss” and lived wonderful lives doing unique things that an objective outside person couldn’t imagine would lead to any level of success, but it did. Never forget that true success is an individual definition.   Happy people make better spouses, parents, siblings, friends and bosses.

Shakespeare stated it perfectly centuries ago, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  To be of maximum service and value to others we must first be true to ourselves.  Please don’t spend a lifetime trying to be someone you are not.  Instead, celebrate and tap into what is great about you already.  Pay attention to the positive signals the world is giving you.  Look for and be open to the “flow” of life and it will find you…

Leadership Thought #463 – You Need To Have Thick Skin To Lead Others

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.  It certainly has its ups and downs and can test anyone’s emotional fortitude.  However, this is the very reason so few people can do it well.  If you take every small slight and failure personally, the job will eat you alive.  Whenever you assume a position of responsibility, you automatically also assume a roster of critics and malcontents who aren’t always aligned with your leadership vision.  Since you can’t realistically fire everyone who disagrees with you (nor is this advisable), then you need to figure out other ways to handle the pressures and scrutiny.

I’ve found that the best leaders I work with welcome the criticism.  They don’t always like it, but they accept that a key aspect of leading people is harnessing disparate points of view and feelings.  I don’t care how smart you are, no one person has all the right answers.  And, since we are all human, we will inevitably make mistakes.  To some extent, your critics keep you on your toes.  They help you maintain your ‘A game” and not take your position for granted.  If you are willing to listen to and embrace their feedback, you will definitely make better decisions.   Of course, there will always be points of diminishing returns, but don’t be too quick to assume you’ve reached this level of dysfunction.  Getting better often involves hard work.

In my life I’ve found that if you can navigate the rocky waters of professional disagreement effectively, then  you actually end up building new advocates for your point of view.  Sometimes the people who were most resistant initially end up becoming your most loyal colleagues.  Give me someone who is up front and honest with their opinions over someone who is more passive-aggressive any day. Healthy relationships are only ever possible if people can be authentically honest with one another.  I’ve also found that much of the initial angst and tension between two people is often due to poor communication and misunderstandings.

Leadership means embracing the spotlight not withering under it.  The very act of putting yourself out there and assuming others will follow is an act of unusual self-confidence.  Most people are hard-wired to follow not lead.  However, everyone can be a critic.  So be it.  As they saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” As a leader you will have good days and bad ones.  You will make great decisions and have many others you would like to take back.  You will trust people who disappoint you and lose good people to your competition.  You will be forced to make decisions with imperfect information and sometimes fail as result.  Many external market forces will be beyond your control to predict and/or influence. Some of your employees will make your life easier while others will require more work than you’d like. Not everyone will always think you are wonderful.

However, when all is said and done, leaders are in the minority people in this world who get to actually influence the future.  They ultimately reap what they sow as a business and individual.  Leaders have the opportunity to make a real positive difference in the lives of their family, employees and community. Maybe even this world.  Leaders get to stretch their personal capabilities in ways others will never experience.   Theirs will be a life of their own making.  Aren’t the benefits of leadership worth a little scrutiny and criticism?  You need to have thick skin to lead others and it is almost always worth it!

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