I have the good fortune of working with over 50 businesses on a regular basis. I get to see the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to leadership challenges. Here are some observations that I hope you will find useful as you continue to manage through these challenging times.
In less than two months we will have a presidential election here in the United States. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to influence voters to lean one way or another. Interestingly enough a majority of people will simply vote their party line and put very little effort into understanding the position of the other candidate or their leadership abilities. As a result, a comparatively small number of swing voters in an equally small number of states will end up deterring the final outcome. As someone who certainly has a strong sense of party loyalty but has crossed party lines on many occasions this has always frustrated me. No one party has the market cornered on good ideas or is the sole wellspring of capable leaders – the history of our nation has proven this.
I have spent considerable time studying leadership and observing leaders. I also enjoy reading about the presidency and the 43 occupants of the oval office. In my humble opinion, the most successful presidents have exhibited the following traits:
Leadership isn’t easy or everyone could do it. Some talented people make it look easy, but we often don’t see all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make it look this way. Most leaders struggle at some point and have to learn some difficult lessons along the way. Experience can be the best teacher if you are open to learning. I’ve observed the following 25 ways (in no particular order) that leaders tend to get themselves in trouble:
In business and in life it’s very important to know who you truly are before you attempt anything dramatic. There are so many messages out there telling us who we ought to be that we sometimes get caught up in a web of self-deceit because that’s what we think we should be doing.
The leader of an organization always sets the tone. Never forget this fact. I am often slightly bemused when I hear a leader complain about the state of things in their organization. It’s almost as if they remove themselves from the equation. They wonder how things have devolved to this point as if it is some deep mystery when all they have to do is look in the mirror. Your people are a reflection of your hiring decisions; the quality of your meetings is directly related to how you lead them and model this behavior for others; missing deadlines is a reflection of what you are willing to tolerate in others and yourself; a lack of focus almost always starts at the top; teamwork only ever happens when the coach sets the expectations and creates the conditions for this to happen; optimistic or pessimistic cultures are usually a reflection of leader’s point of view; etc.
Winning does matter. Our country is built on the idea of individual freedom, personal initiative, competitive markets and free enterprise. In the Unites States we are constantly keeping score and rewarding those that achieve in all walks of life. You can chose to live a reactive and safe life rather than a proactive and riskier existence, but then you are dependent upon others who create the overall conditions of success from which you earn your living. This doesn’t mean that all successful people do it the right way or have admirable values. There will always be individuals who cheat the system or take advantage of the less fortunate. However, I would contend that this number is smaller than everyone thinks and our legal system (contrary to popular opinion) does a good job of ferreting them out. It certainly is not perfect, but our civic system and the “rule of law” does exist and often works. Regardless, we all learn from an early age that life isn’t fair and all we can control is our actions in response to anything that happens. There are very few true victims in life…
I am a firm believer in persistence and determination. Many people give up just before things are about to break their way. However, it never makes sense to go off a cliff simply because it is there. Not every strategy is wise and not every course of action is worth continuing. You need to pay attention to the signals the universe is sending you. Trends either move up or down. They rarely remain flat. Sometimes the objective evidence indicates you should try something different.
It is rare that things work out exactly as planned. We often attempt something with the best of intentions and then run smack into a reality not as accommodating as we’d like it to be. In all decision making or negotiation situations it’s advisable to have a plan B that allows you to adjust for shifting circumstances or differing points of view. We often don’t get everything we want, but to paraphrase the Rolling Stones if we are smart about it, “we just might find we get what we need.” It’s very important to be able to prioritize your objectives and know where you have some room for movement. In fact, it’s critical to build flexibility into your response strategy.
How an organization makes decisions greatly affects whether or not it will have sustained levels of success. Any company can get lucky every once in awhile, but relying on ad hoc judgments is not a good strategy. One of the most important things a leader does is make decisions. He/she must also create a culture that knows how to make sound judgments without relying too much on any one individual. In essence, you want to foster an environment where you, your management team, and other key employees use decision making filters to increase the likelihood of making the right choices.
There is a term commonly used in real estate when describing the value of an individual property called its “highest and best use.” The highest and best use is always that use that would produce the highest value for a property, regardless of its actual current use. I want to encourage leaders to think the same way about their own role. As the lead person in your organization, it is your responsibility to vigorously protect your time and activity. Any number of distractions will pop up in a given day, but they cannot be allowed to dilute your energy, talent and focus from what’s most important.
I’ve met many business owners through the years who admit that if something happened to them the business would have a hard time continuing operations for any period of time. This always makes me nervous. Leadership isn’t about building dependency upon any one person. It is about getting a group of people working interdependently towards a common goal. Of course it’s much harder to do this when you are relatively small, but as you begin to grow and add staff, you should be constantly thinking about building operational redundancy and minimizing personnel/performance risk.
We all know the danger of rushing to quick judgments or making false assumptions about things, but we continue to do it anyway. I’ve heard many speakers talk about the reptilian portion of our brain that is focused solely on survival and keeping us out of harms way. In essence, we are hardwired for self-protection. However, in a world where our day to day survival is rarely in question, we need to be careful about allowing the most primal part of our thought process to have too much control. A knee jerk or gut reaction to stimuli is often not a wise strategy and can actually end up being problematic.
There is no such thing as passive leadership. Leaders lead – it really is that simple. Instead of shying away from a challenge, leaders embrace it. When others are hesitant to take action, leaders step up and seize the initiative. Instead of folding under pressure, leaders thrive under the spotlight and find the harder parts of their job the most rewarding. Leaders intuitively know that everything important begins and ends with them, but the middle part is a team effort and they allow others to step up and share their individual and collective strengths as needed. The best leaders only say “I” when it involves shouldering the blame, but say “we” when it means sharing the credit.
I see people get themselves in trouble all the time by be unwilling to admit they don’t know something. At minimum, they make their lives harder than it has to be. They also make things more challenging for the people around them because someone usually has to pick up after them or cover up the mistake. Politicians are notorious for speaking confidently about things they know very little about (have you watched any of the recent debates). Rather than look uninformed or stupid they prefer to spin the truth or some version of it. Why we continue to reward this behavior in the voting booth is beyond my comprehension.
I come across a lot of books, magazines, TV shows these days that are selling simplicity and the quick fix to life. The main contention is that all of our lives are too busy and complicated and if we would just scale back and reprioritize what’s most important to us then everything would be better. The focus is squarely on the individual and what he /she feels they want or need. All we have to do put ourselves first and everything will go our way. Moreover, we shouldn’t settle for anything less than regular happiness and self-fulfillment which in my opinion is an unrealistic and often damaging perspective.
A weakness I often see in leaders is a belief that their job is to supply all the answers. They tend to dominate discussions and almost always want to have the last word. The problem is that no matter how smart and capable you are, you will always be limited by your own thinking and life experience. In addition, if you create an environment where everyone looks to you for answers, then you will hinder the growth and development of your employees and enable mediocre effort (and commitment).
…the ultimate goal of any business should be to have high quality employees who are focused on providing value-added services to a loyal and growing client base in an efficient and profitable manner.
Many leaders often have a hard time getting real honest feedback about their performance. There are many reasons for this, but fear is usually the primary obstacle. Most people have a hard time commenting critically to others who have the ability to directly influence their work situation.
In organizations as in democracies the inability to foster constructive conflict is a troubling development. To grow and get better, there needs to be disagreement about how to best do things and find new answers to old problems.
Every company should be run profitably. A portion of this profit should then be saved for future emergencies or needs. This should become the standard approach to managing your organization’s finances.
Besides the quality of their people, what differentiates most high performing companies is their vision, focus and discipline.