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:
A fascinating aspect of our human existence is that despite what happens to us, in most cases life simply goes on. The world stops for no one regardless of the challenge or tragedy they are confronting. Of course, we all know how the journey ultimately ends but until that point we are forced to be resilient and navigate whatever twists and turns come our way. No matter how far you climb the ladder of life there will always be some things beyond your capacity to control. Sometimes all we can do is accept our circumstances and react in the best way we can.
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…
A conversation without listening is merely the exchange of two monologues. If we limit our exchange of information to what we already know or believe, we are limiting our capacity to learn, grow and have healthy relationships. Almost everyday you witness evidence of public or private figures that really have no interest in hearing what anyone else is saying. It has become practice to become intractable in your views and block out any contrary evidence. In reality, our society tends to reward brashness and poor behavior these days. Just look at who dominates the airwaves.
Change is a fact of life. Like or not we will get older. Our minds will get sharper then grow duller. Out bodies will get hard then grow softer. Friends will come and go. Loved ones will enter this world while others exit. If we have children, they will grow up and become independent adults and leave the nest. Our careers will follow a natural arc of emergence, growth, maturity and decline. We will have periods of minimal responsibility and other moments where it feels like we are overwhelmed with life/work obligations. It is difficult to grasp at times, but very few things will ever stay the same.
Since Father’ Day is right around the corner, I thought it would be fitting to share some of what I have learned from my dad. Every boy’s first role model is his father. You believe him to be a man of Olympian strength, Einstein-like intellect and the quintessential self-reliant individual as portrayed by Ralph Waldo Emerson. There was nothing he couldn’t fix or problem he couldn’t solve. I remember watching many cowboy movies as a kid and always assuming my dad would have made the better protagonist.
As we get older we learn that our dad is human like everyone else and if you are smart you eventually relieve him of the pressures of sitting up on a pedestal. However, many of the lessons we learn from our parents end up lasting a lifetime. My dad taught me the following:
In my line of work, I am constantly on the lookout for life lessons and what leads to happiness and success. Fortunately, I have been blessed to work with some wonderful people who provide me with excellent fodder for my learning. While most of my time is spent on the business leadership front, I do get a larger picture view at times. I have never believed in compartmentalizing important life issues and prefer to take a multidimensional approach to my work since there are no one dimensional human beings. Over the years I found that how you answer the following 12 questions will have a big impact on your overall quality of life:
Leaders should be in a constant learning mode. Once you think you know it all give up the reigns of power because you will become detrimental to your organization. While some basic fundamental beliefs may remain true regardless of the circumstances, most of what takes place in business is in a constant state of flux. Your goal should be to stay ahead of the change curve not fall behind it. One way to do this is to keep asking questions and seeking answers. You can never be smart enough.
In business (and life) you are either growing and getting better or going in the opposite direction. Just like your muscles, your brain and natural abilities will atrophy if they don’t get exercise. You can’t stand still and expect progress. I see far too many people who “let up” at the very time they need to “push the envelope” and challenge themselves to do better. It’s also sad when a leader stays on too long and becomes more interested in ego, power and position than effectively navigating change and facilitating progress.
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.
I often worry about people who read too many self-help books and/or set lofty expectations for themselves based on what others think or espouse. Many of these books or speakers attempt to create and communicate a common definition of success and/or happiness that resonates with everyone and is applicable in all situations. They also tend to engender flawed comparisons of reality and potential. It’s almost as if who you are doesn’t matter and that everyone is equally capable in all situations and that there is a proven recipe for managing all life has in store for you.
Very few people are meant to take the full journey with you in life. Sometimes you outgrow people, lose the interpersonal connection and/or leave them behind. Instead of regretting the loss, cherish the time you had together and keep it as a fond memory. I’ve written before how I believe that everyone’s life is a novel and sometimes new chapters require new characters. It is all part of the process of growing, learning and evolving as a human being. Most every transitional point in our life involves bridging a chasm of some sort and other people are usually the means by which we cross over. However, they don’t all make the same crossing with us.
As I’ve stated in previous blogs, I am strong believer that a leader’s role especially in fast growing or relatively large organizations is to think. And, to think effectively you need to be well read. You need to have broad understanding of many things including behavioral psychology and general business management issues. It’s also important to be well informed of market realities including local, regional, national or international trends that affect your business. Moreover, as a leader you should leverage the experience and knowledge of past leadership figures and become a student of leadership behavior.
Talent will only ever get you so far in life. You have to regularly exercise that talent and push yourself to do better. The moment you start getting too comfortable in your role is the moment you become vulnerable to someone else who wants it more. As all high performing athletes instinctively know the difference between success and failure can literally be measured in inches or seconds. This doesn’t mean that you have to become a workaholic but it does mean you should take nothing for granted. The landscape of leadership history is littered with countless numbers of talented people who never fully realized their potential and/or settled for being “good enough.”
Knowledge is one of the biggest advantages you can have in life. If you know something and other people don’t then there is automatically a need for your informed opinion. It is the ultimate equalizer because it has nothing to do with age, gender or race. Some people may begin life with a genetic head start or environmental advantages, however, unless they keep learning it is very likely someone else will pass them buy.
When you teach leadership at a graduate level (which I do part time) it’s easy to be an optimist. You get to see the vibrancy and drive in people. These are individuals who are proactively investing their money and time to better themselves and create a more hopeful future. Some students automatically rise to the top while others shine in different ways depending upon the assignments/discussions. If you are paying close enough attention, it does support the management philosophy that every individual has a strength to share and will step up if they are properly motivated and given the opportunity to do so. No one at this level wants to fail. It’s important to remember this reality as the instructor.
I’ve sat through a large number of seminars with many leaders and one thing always sticks out. The most successful business people I know don’t just listen to and absorb information, they act on it. This doesn’t mean they act on everything they hear, but when something does resonate with them, they tend to move quickly to make changes.
The history of business is littered with the failures of innately gifted and talented leaders who never realized their full potential because they were slow to change, didn’t work hard enough at getting smarter, couldn’t think their way out of adversity or thought they had all the answers.
“Pride does goeth before the fall.” It never ceases to amaze me how many people especially leaders can’t admit it when they are wrong. It’s almost as if the sheer fact of admitting their mistakes will make them weak and vulnerable to others. Our last president couldn’t even come up with one mistake when frequently queried about his handling of two major wars. In multiple press conferences you could tell there was an inner struggle going within him and defensiveness about what to say or not say. The press was quite frankly stunned by his lack of a response. I don’t for second believe he didn’t have anything to offer he just couldn’t be seen publicly doing it.
All successful people that I know learn from their mistakes. In fact, it is often a big mistake or two that ends up being a pivotal point in their career. If you aren’t making mistakes then you aren’t taking enough risks or pushing yourself hard enough to get a true understanding of your potential.
We all reach a point where we have to make decisions based on imperfect and sometimes even contradictory information. There is no “perfect” decision. Whether it is who we hire, when we enter new markets, how much to invest in new products and technologies, when to expand or contract a business relationship, or any other number of issues, leadership ultimately comes down to judgment. In addition, in our personal lives we will all hit crossroads, where the decisions we make will literally have an impact on the rest of our lives. There is always the risk you may make the wrong decision, but you try to mitigate this risk through sound judgment.