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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.

Leadership Thought #451 – Beware Of The Pedestal

Beware of putting yourself or anyone up on a pedestal.  There are right ways and wrong ways to feed someone else’s or your own ego.  Just because an individual has experienced significant success in one aspect of life, doesn’t mean they are equally competent in all other things human.  It doesn’t do that person or you any good to blanket the praise.  It is one thing to appreciate and respect individual accomplishment.  It is another to think that similar success could be achieved in whatever else that person attempted.  In fact, it can be dangerous as we heed advice or jump to conclusions about different situations based on who we choose as our role models.  For example, Bruce Springsteen is a very talented songwriter and musician, but there is most likely a difference between his songwriting and his own reality.  He is not a deity, he is a man. Thinking he has life all figured out isn’t fair to him or you.  No one of that stature can ever live up to the hype.

I see the same thing in business circles.  Leaders who have achieved some level of success are held up as paragons of business acumen and virtue.  It takes a pretty evolved person not to fall victim to this trap and believe their own press.  Sadly, if you read the business media, you will notice that many of them are quick to embrace their own esteemed status and offer opinions on many things they know nothing or little about.  The truth is that what works for one person may not work for someone else.  In addition, taking intellectual shortcuts or jumping to fast conclusions based on what you believe to be true is a slippery slope.  The scientific method is still a fairly good guideline on testing your own hypotheses.  One size rarely fits all.  An opinion is merely a point of view unless it is substantiated with facts.  Moreover, circumstances are almost always unique and situational.

Ideologues have always concerned because they believe too much in what they say, rarely listen to other perspectives and demonize or denigrate their opposition.  They spend most of their time proselytizing or defending what they think rather than challenging and growing their understanding of what they believe they already know (or need to know).  They are almost obsessed with creating converts to their viewpoint. They talk at people instead of engaging them in two-way conversations. Their opinion is always what matters most.  Those who don’t drink the kool-aid are deemed ignorant, misinformed, have character flaws, or simply obstacles to progress. We have plenty of this on both the right and left in Washington, DC at the moment.  If nothing changes there is a crisis of leadership coming that will be terribly hard to overcome.  Nature has a way of dealing with broken ecosystems.

All the above being said, I certainly believe there is a lot we can learn from others who have reached the pinnacle of their respective profession(s).   Just make sure you are careful about what you can truly learn from them.  Diversity of input is much more important than embracing like-minded views and/or validating what you believe you already know.  We can often learn from others what not to do as much as what we should emulate. No one has it all figured out and anyone who thinks they do is foolhardy, especially if their life has been somewhat one-dimensional.  The future will always be much different from the past or present.  The more I age, the more I appreciate what I don’t know.  It is the gray areas of life which end being the most difficult to navigate. Sometimes there are no easy answers…

If you are one those people who is already on pedestal I encourage you to be careful about what you espouse and how seriously you take your own opinions.  Confidence can quickly become arrogance.  Just study the history books and you will find countless examples of leaders who end up faltering under their weight of their own pride and ego.  Life has a way of humbling us all. I often tell my clients that when you think you have it all figured out it is time for you to sell your business or let someone else take over.  Leadership is much more about asking the right questions and searching for the right answers then it is applying what you think you already know.  Moreover, avoid becoming expert on what others should be doing and focus more on becoming the best you that you can be.  We are all a work in progress.  There is no leadership/life philosophy or set of techniques that is applicable in all situations.

Pedestals are for flowers and art work not people…

Leadership Thought #440 – Avoid Being Put On A Pedestal

Avoid being put on a pedestal by yourself or by others.  I’ve seen good people get too full of themselves when they begin to view themselves as extra special and different from everyone else. It happens in all industries and in all sectors.  Nonprofit leaders certainly aren’t excluded.  It is never good for any of us to be surrounded by people who are too deferential.  Success without humility typically leads to ego issues.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t value or respect accomplishment, but we shouldn’t put a disproportionate emphasis on the attributes of the person.  Superlative outcomes are usually the result of good timing, hard work and specialized focus not generic ability.  In addition, doing good work that taps into your unique talents and makes a positive difference in the lives of others should be enough of a reward.  Don’t get too caught up with celebrating YOU.

It’s also important to remember that no one is ever successful alone.  There are many people who helped you climb the ladder and scale the heights.  Share the credit widely and generously.  You also probably learned some tough lessons along the way and didn’t always make the best choices – something we often forget.  No one ever bats 1000%.   It is the sum total of your experiences, not just the good parts which make you who you are.  Life has a way of humbling all of us.   No one ever fully creates their own luck regardless of what they would like to think.  Wise people understand that we are supposed to learn and grow through tribulation as much as triumph.  The history of humankind is littered with leaders who forget this simple fact.

Arrogance is just your ego run amok.  Arrogant people stop listening to what others have to say.  They tend to make quick judgments about other individuals and their capabilities.   Their patience tends to run thin. Manners start to slowly wither in subtle or sometimes even unsubtle ways.  Basic human kindness also somehow becomes known as generosity (and not in a good way).  If it doesn’t directly affect them, they lose interest quickly.   They stop soliciting constructive feedback.  Unless, of course, the feedback comes from someone they believe to be their equal or superior (note: over time fewer people fit this category).   Their primary goal becomes validating their own point of view instead of searching for the best answer.  They start over-valuing what they know over what they still need to learn.  They begin to live in a bubble of their own making rather than expanding their worldview.

I’ve been around long enough now to know that even the most capable leaders I know aren’t good at everything. When they start overreaching or taking unnecessary risks it is a sign that something is amiss.  Surround yourself with talented good people rather just trying to be great yourself.  Widen rather than narrow your feedback loop.  Success is equal parts science and art.  And, replicating success isn’t as easy as it sounds.  I’m constantly amazed by how people who used to exhibit some degree of intellectual rigor start forming strong opinions with very little knowledge of the facts.  “Ready, fire, aim” becomes the norm. When you think you know it all and start to act like you are bulletproof, then it is time to get out of the leadership game.  Yesterday’s heroes can easily become tomorrow’s goats.  Leave the pedestals to others and instead focus on being the best YOU possible regardless of the acclaim.  We are all a work in progress and require ongoing learning, personal humility and love and support from others to excel in life.  It is not a solo journey…

Leadership Thought #415 – Know When To Stand Your Ground

There is alot of talk about compromise in the media lately especially as it pertains to our federal government.  There is this general sense that if political leaders would just be reasonable then there is an easy pathway to finding common ground.  While I am certainly a fan of win-win negotiations, I don’t always believe that compromise is the best course of action.  Sometimes you have to stand on principle and do what you believe is right instead of what may be politically expedient.  Courage can be a lonely place at times, but going against your core values/beliefs usually has much worse consequences.  Some things should be non-negotiable.

The problem many of experience is that we anchor ourselves to too many things.  If everything is important than nothing truly is.  We need to be more thoughtful and selective about the battles we choose to fight.  It’s not just about winning.  It’s also about how you win and what your motivations were for winning in the first place.   Sometimes you do need to yield the field for the greater good and/or because the issue truly isn’t that important to you.  Otherwise you are just engaging in political gamesmanship which may feed your ego but is an absolute waste of time.  When you do hold your ground, make sure your resolve is firmly cemented in a position that is worth defending.

Most of the leaders we experience in our lives have clay feet.  It’s not that difficult to smash the foundation of their positions and let them crumble into rubble of their own making.  It is why when we actually meet someone of solid character and consistent values we hold them in such high regard (even when we don’t always agree with them).  Life may be experienced situationally but is ultimately evaluated in the aggregate and based on the related behavioral patterns that emerge.

What type of person are you?  Where do you get in your own way?  What are your core values?  What is the root of these beliefs?  Are your intentions honorable under any fair level of scrutiny?  What are your real non-negotiables (less is more)?  What is your true responsibility to the position you hold and those you?  When all is said and done, what is the positive legacy you want to leave behind?  Answer these questions honestly and you will know when to stand your ground and when to compromise for the greater good…

Leadership Thought #401 – Your Pride Can Get You In Trouble

Imagine if someone was rushed to the Emergency Room of a hospital with severe symptoms of something wrong and then decided to tell the doctor that that it was no big deal and then selectively shared information about their true physical state.   You would think this person was being irresponsible with their health.  This happens all the time in business.  Leaders let their pride and ego get in the way and it prevents them form being forthright and honest at the very time they need to be.   I’ve seen many a business go down the tubes that didn’t have to because the leader was slow to act, slow to ask for help and unwilling to face reality.   Avoidance rarely works in business or life.

I’ve learned to listen skeptically when I hear someone say “it’s no big deal” or “we’ll be okay” or “failure isn’t an option.”  Just like a body has vital signs you check to get a baseline on someone’s health, a business has key performance indicators that signal something is wrong.  If the number don’t add up you are in trouble.  Your pricing and business model must reflect market realities. You can only operate so long with negative cash flow.  Continued growth and investment without any real profit just digs a deeper whole.   You can’t continue to spend more than your earn.  At a certain point, some debt loads become unbearable.  It really is quite simple.

As the owner of a company that has been around for more than a few years (start-ups are excluded) if you have to put your own money into a business to keep it solvent than there is a major problem with your business model.  Of course, there may be extraordinary situations where this could happen but it should be the exception not the rule.  If a bank won’t lend you money or extend your line a credit when needed, you should take a step back and reflect upon what you are doing.   Sadly, I’ve seen individuals lose all the wealth they have saved over a lifetime trying to bail out a business that was in crisis mode or unsustainable. Unfortunately, this happens more quickly than you think.

All businesses hit a bump in the road at some point – it is to be expected.  The sooner you see this coming and own up to your circumstances the better.  The numbers don’t lie unless you calculate them improperly.   The good news is that there are many resources at your disposal once you decide to come clean about your circumstances.   More people than you think have a vested interest in your success.  It could be your professional advisors, your bank, business colleagues/peers, strategic partners, friends, long-term clients and members of your management team.   Most people will want to help you out if you just ask them, cut through the BS and tell them the truth.  Sure someone may betray your trust but the risk is worth it and you usually know who these people are in advance anyway and can limit their involvement.

Don’t let your pride become an obstacle to your survival or success.  There is a difference between being self-reliant and being reckless.  Sometimes you have to risk being vulnerable and letting down your guard.   I’ve yet to see a business problem that can’t be solved if you have enough time to solve it and the right people are working on it.  The solution may not always be what you want but it will be better than no solution at all or having your fate decided by someone else. Your pride can (and will) get you in trouble if you are not careful.

Leadership Thought #342 – Don’t Lose Your Personal Censor Button

As you grow as a leader and start to have some success it’s important that you not get too full of yourself and remain somewhat humble. This is especially true as you begin to do more public speaking.  While you certainly can, it’s not advisable to just say whatever is on your mind and believe you have all the answers.  I’m often amazed how many people forget this fact.   Otherwise smart people who have a lot to share with an audience kill their credibility with unwise or unnecessarily controversial statements.  You have to know when to use your personal censor button.

It is certainly okay to have strong beliefs, but be wary of speaking with a sense of certainty unless you have a strong set of facts to back up your case.  It’s also important to note that if your audience has any level of sophistication it will know that you can usually massage statistics to make your case.  As the saying goes, correlation doesn’t prove causation.  In addition, just because you’ve read a book or two on a subject doesn’t mean you are an expert especially if the author has a biased opinion to begin with.  People will ultimately see through thinly veiled arguments.  Being brash will get someone’s attention but it will also engender more increased personal scrutiny.

Two things tend to get speakers in trouble: speaking in sweeping generalizations and making unfounded personal criticisms. 

We all know that life can be complicated at times and situations and context matters.  To act like your experience or knowledge is applicable in all situations is a foolish position to take because more often than not there will always be exceptions or things you don’t know.   It’s okay to have an opinion, but position it as such not as a fact when it is not.    I wish many more leaders would use qualifying statements when making strong points.  There are very few things any of us could or should speak with certainty about.  For example, how can someone who isn’t a scientist debate the scientific merits of something without the proper training or knowledge to do so?  I also have great difficulty respecting someone who is intractable in their opinions and not open to alternative points of view.  A closed mind is not worth listening to…

I’ve never understood going out of your way to be personally critical of someone else in making your points to an audience.  You can certainly criticize positions you don’t agree with but stay focused on the issue not the person.  How can you ascribe motivations or fault the character of someone you don’t even know?  It’s amazing how quickly people rush to judgment on political candidates from either party without ever truly listening to what they have to say or doing even the most basic research on their past track record.  This has become an especially dangerous strategy these days as people take on more strident political and religious beliefs. 

You never win someone over by insulting them or a person they admire.  You also rarely elevate yourself long-term by diminishing others.  You only create further divisiveness and alienate as many people as you convert to your point of view.  This may sell books and media advertising, but it doesn’t promote progress or successfully address any real problems.  It just feeds your ego which probably should go on a diet anyway.  Be ever mindful of your censor button and USE it.

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