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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 #427 – Weakness Is Infectious (and Dangerous)

At the risk of sounding like an old codger (which I am not), I can’t believe how worked up people get up over common issues these days.  It’s almost as if any level of adversity is intolerable.  You would have thought the end the world was near the way everyone especially the media reacted to the recent winter storm.  We were bombarded with worst case scenarios and impending doom.  People raced to stores to stock up just in case they lost power for a few days. My goodness, can’t we handle a few days of discomfort if required?  As a friend said yesterday, “Why the huge interest in toilet paper, can families really not survive a few days without TP?” Are they that close to the edge of hygienic catastrophe?  I’ve seen it happen in families, businesses, schools, and communities: if you are not careful, weakness and worry is infectious.  Like all significant change, it all starts with small symbolic gestures and begins to gain momentum elsewhere.

As a parent of two children at impressionable ages, I am very concerned that our collective societal weakness is leaving an undesirable impression on the next generation.  Life isn’t always meant to be easy.   Character is built through navigating whatever difficulties emerge in your path and proving to yourself you are capable and resilient.  So what if it snows a bit, school takes place anyway and if you are an adult you are expected to show up at work.  Of course, there is some risk.  Life is full of risk.  Somehow my school system in New York managed to navigate much worse storms and not call off school anytime there was some threat of precipitation.  Missing school or work should be the exception not the norm.

We also need to be able to differentiate between real and perceived threats.  If everything is crisis then nothing truly is.  And, distractions minimize your focus on what truly is important.   I am often fascinated and a bit depressed when I have conversations with my peers and their many neuroses quickly rise to the surface.  Guess what, America is much safer than it used to be, contrary to popular opinion.  Our largest immigrant population tends to have very strong family values and a wonderful work ethic. They are not threats to the system; they keep it afloat (just like their predecessors). Our economic model depends upon immigration.   China is not a threat to our global economic security. They are, in fact, potentially the biggest market in the world for our goods and services and are the top purchasers of  U.S. debt.  Can our national budget really not weather single digit cuts without the economy tanking?  Wall Street is not the sole reason for your financial woes.  It is usually your own personal attitudes towards wealth, debt and money that make your economic life difficult.  When did it become okay to be a victim?  There are true victims out there and lumping yourself in that category only diminishes the severity of the real problems in this world.

I am not a historian but I would bet that the downfall of all the great nations partially started when the people became too comfortable with status quo and lost the edge that made them successful in the first place.  They started to look backward not forward.  Instead of setting an example for other nations to emulate, they ended up falling victim to their own vulnerabilities/insecurities and started substituting strong rhetoric for actual affirmative action.  They also spent a disproportionate amount of money defending what they already have rather than investing in their future.   Individual and collective strength of character is a prerequisite for healthy and vibrant society.  The history of mankind is that we have proven that we, as human beings, are up to any challenge.  However, the strong do survive and the weak will wither – this is also a fact of nature.

Leadership Thought #264 – Vulnerability Doesn’t Equal Weakness

As a boy growing up pretty much all my public role models were the strong silent types.  John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen were all men of few words but vigorous action.  Men didn’t show their feelings; they just dealt with whatever came their way in the most expeditious fashion.  Problems were meant to be solved not fretted over.  Real men weren’t vulnerable. They were strong for all of those around them and kept their feelings to themselves.  My dad very much lived up to this expectation.  I can’t remember even one example of him telling me how he “felt” about something.  He just did what he was supposed to do and that was that.

From where I sit now I both respect and feel sorry for him.  It must not have been easy to always just have to “suck it up” and just deal with things.   Vulnerability isn’t a weakness it is just the acceptance of being human and having to deal with the whole range of human emotions.  And, emotions aren’t bad.  It’s how we deal with our emotions that matters.   No one has ALL the answers and to act like you do must be a pretty heavy burden.  Leaning on other people when you need them isn’t a sign of weakness but more indicative of our common human need of love, friendship and support.  If you bottle every thing up and repress how you are truly feeling, then eventually something will have to give and the reaction may end up being disproportionate or out of context.  Sadly, anger is often a common outlet for men who are struggling to come to grips with their emotions.

All of life is lived on an emotional continuum.  To ignore this fact simply won’t work long term.  This doesn’t mean you should dwell in the land of extremes and/or share how you are feeling about everything all the time.   What it doesn’t mean is that it’s okay to show some cracks in the armor.  When life gets heavy or you are in the midst of great difficulty, seek out family/friends and ask for help.  At minimum find a few people you can open up to and confide in.  Being vulnerable doesn’t equal weakness.  It is a part of life we all must deal with to our detriment or betterment – the choice is yours.

Leadership Thought #243 – Every Strength Has A Shadow, Every Weakness Has A Shield

Human beings are very interesting creatures.  We are all so vastly different and complex in our personalities, characteristics and mannerisms.  Every one of us is born with inherent strengths and positive personality characteristics.  You can already see this in newborns and young children.  My two kids couldn’t be more different.  Each of them will default to these strengths on a regular basis and it is a big part of how they socialize and cope with things.  More often than not, this is a good thing.  It can also prove to be problematic if it goes too far because every strength does have a shadow.

People can be “too much” of something.  For example, you can be too empathetic and spend all your time worrying about others.  You can be too verbal and not spend enough time listening and miss important bits of information.  Being calm is good, but being too calm can get boring and limit your emotional connection with others.  You can be too confident and come off as arrogant.    Too much of anything is never a good thing.

The flip side of our strengths is our weaknesses.  Unfortunately, just like our strengths they are somewhat hard wired. We all have obstacles to overcome about who we are, how we handle things and our view of the world.  Over time we build up shields to protect us from these weaknesses.   Shy people will regularly avoid being the center of attention (sometimes to their detriment).   Individuals who struggle with details will try to avoid details altogether and make basic mistakes because they couldn’t be bothered or defer responsibility just to get it whatever it is, done.  Type “A” people will push themselves too hard and are often on the verge of physical and emotional burnout if they are not careful. Moreover, they can be very difficult to spend time with as the initial excitement and energy wears thin.

Bottom line is that we all have assets and liabilities as individuals.  There is a school of thought that given this we should focus just on what we are good at (leveraging the assets) and minimize everything else.   I believe this mindset has the danger of being short-sighted and self-limiting.  Too much of anything is never a good thing.  The only way we evolve is through learning and experience.   Personal growth happens with time as we stretch our perspectives and challenge individual conceits and preconceptions.  If we narrowly focus our growth opportunities, we aren’t fully living.  Weaknesses also exist and must be dealt with, not just circumvented or fortified with self protective behaviors. Adversity and challenge are a regular part of life and require some level of personal vulnerability if they are to be successfully navigated.

I encourage you to make an exhaustive list of both your strengths and weaknesses. The next step would be to rank order these items in terms of the top 5-7 in each category.  I would then validate this list with the people closest to you.  Once you have this list finalized, then ask yourself how too much of a given strength may have caused some problems in your life.  Do your best to figure out how much is too much and where the shadow begins to loom.   In terms personal weaknesses, ask yourself, what protective behaviors you have built up over time to deal with these issues.   How have these shields affected the people closest to you?  Are these behaviors hindering your personal/professional growth and development?  Once you’ve waded through this pool of self-reflection then institute subtle changes in your actions and response to situations that will begin make a positive difference.

The goal for any human being should be to maximize our individual value and contribution to our fellow human beings, especially to those closest to us.   You are either adding or subtracting value on a daily basis.   We commonly do this through leveraging our strengths and managing our weaknesses.  We are all born with much in common, but there is also much that makes us different.  To paraphrase Popeye, “we are what we are,” but the story doesn’t have to end that way.   Real growth requires understanding that there are both shadows and shields to our behaviors and they should not loom too large or become too strong respectively.   As always, self-awareness is the first step in the journey…

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