Six Ways You Sabotage Your Leadership Ability

With all your credentials your leadership skills should be impeccable. You have an MBA from Harvard or some other prestigious business school. You’ve taken every executive certification program that’s come down the pike. You’ve been trained, coached, counseled and seminar-ed to the point of overload. But somehow, you keep failing as a leader in ways both overt and subtle. The same problems keep cropping up over and over again. And frankly, you have no idea where to turn next.

Instead of looking outside yourself for help, trying looking inward, says change-management consultant Morris Shechtman, author of the new book Fifth Wave Leadership: The Internal Frontier (Facts on Demand Press, January 2003, ISBN: 1-889150-38-X, $19.95). The truth is, your success as a leader has much more to do with your level of self-awareness than with how many degrees you’ve accumulated and how many programs you’ve completed.

“We all tend to repeat the same patterns over and over,” says Shechtman. “That’s because we are all subject to our familiars, which are strong and persistent collections of attitudes rooted in childhood that cause us to act in certain predictable ways. It’s very difficult to change your leadership patterns if you don’t understand this basic truth. Furthermore, the familiars that commonly manifest in the workplace can make it seem as though unproductive leadership behaviors are ‘normal’—an illusion that helps keep you mired in the same problems throughout your career.”

“To make matters worse, the information- and technology-rich era we live in makes it harder than ever to be a leader,” he adds. “You have to be able to navigate a tremendously sophisticated maze of business possibilities and inspire and motivate people on a deeply personal level. The two most critical skills in today’s world are making good decisions and building strong relationships. And that’s why it’s more important than ever to understand the behavior patterns that keep you from doing so.”

Certainly, the emotional baggage that’s weighing you down and keeping you from reaching your full leadership potential is varied and complex, and requires stringent internal exploration to identify. But Shechtman says he sees many of his clients and colleagues struggling with the same basic leadership problems, and examining them may yield insights you can apply to your own life and career. Here are some of the most common reasons you may be failing as a leader:

• You live by the theory of scarcity rather than the theory of plenty. The theory of scarcity holds that there are very limited resources out there to meet your needs and you must therefore accept any opportunity that comes your way. The theory of plenty says that there are infinite resources available to you, and you can pick and choose opportunities that mesh with your values and that ultimately benefit you. Believe it or not, you learned one of these mindsets before you were five years old—and it is still driving the decisions you make in your life and career!
If you subscribe to the theory of scarcity, you have a sense of desperation about every business decision you make. You may take on clients that undermine your company. You may hire and keep toxic employees. You may become trapped in fragmentation (because there’s no discernable focus to your business) and isolation (because you are too afraid to collaborate with people who might “steal” your business).
On the other hand, if you live by the theory of plenty, you turn down business that isn’t right for you. You hire the right kinds of people and fire those that are harming your company. You make focused, discriminating business choices based on your values and vision. You collaborate freely, thus expanding your network and leading more people to see you as a resource. If you lose a client, so what? You know a better one will come along. It’s easy to see how this mindset makes you a better leader.

• You avoid and discourage conflict. Do you think that conflict is somehow “bad” for yourself and your company? It’s not. Indeed, managing conflict is the very foundation of leadership. That’s because there is no growth without challenge, and there’s no challenge without conflict. A good leader must confront his employees on their negative behaviors and attitudes. Sure, it’s painful (for you and for them), but if you just tell people what they want to hear, you perpetuate relationships that are comfortable but ultimately superficial and pointless. And you give them the false impression that they are competent at doing what they’re actually incompetent at doing. And in the process you lose all credibility as a leader.
Many people believe that teamwork means everyone agrees, supports each other and gets along. Nothing could be further from the truth! Effective teams are made up of people who care enough about each other to generate conflict and confront the tough issues. If everyone agrees with their teammates without question, what usually happens is the whole team marches down the rosy path to self-destruction. It’s business suicide! So if you discourage conflict between your employees, not only are you an ineffective leader but soon there may not be a company left for you to lead.

• You refuse to get involved in employees’ personal lives. Consider this truth: all business is personal. In our integrated, information-intensive culture, it’s difficult to live compartmentalized lives. There is no longer a firewall between personal and professional; we now live “blended” lives marked by a sense of fluidity. You as a leader already take work home and chances are so do your employees. So why is it so difficult to accept the converse, that employees’ personal lives come to work with them? The reality is that the personal issues your employees deal with (or don’t) do affect their work — and therefore it is appropriate for leaders to address these issues.
Here is an example. Suppose that you have a valuable employee who is involved in an abusive, dysfunctional relationship. You know about this, but figure that it’s a personal issue and none of your business, so you don’t broach the subject with her. Then one weekend she finally decides she’s had enough, so she flees the scene—just packs her bags and leaves town. Because no one was there to help her, she ends up leaving the company in a terrible bind. Good leaders realize that people’s un-dealt-with issues, whether they manifest at home or at the office, are the company’s greatest risk . . . and they work to eliminate that risk.

• You intervene too early in people’s struggles. One of the worst things you can do in business—as well as in society in general—is to intervene too early in the struggles people face. As soon as you do so you take responsibility for their lives, and they never discover how rich a resource base they possess. Your employees must find the path that works for them. If you take over they will know what works for you, but not necessarily what works for them. Struggle is empowering and there is dignity in it.
As a leader you need to understand that struggling with their issues is how people get clear on what they believe. Their knowledge comes from their feelings and you can’t teach feelings, people simply have to experience them. So if you just give employees the “right answer,” you circumvent this feeling process. And if you intervene too early it’s probably because of your own pain—it’s painful for you to watch them struggle. It’s similar to “tough love.” And it’s the only way they will ever grow and develop.

• You’re charismatic. If you’re the kind of leader that other people tend to put up on a pedestal and turn to for all the answers, you may be crippling your company. That’s because charismatic people remove responsibility from everybody else and convince them that they can’t do anything on their own behalf. And what happens is that your employees are so mesmerized by you that they come to see themselves as followers—not as future leaders. Your company fails to grow and develop people to take over after you leave. And succession management is one of a leader’s prime responsibilities.
In a sustainable organization, the leader is not charismatic but the culture is.
A charismatic culture has a clear value system that constantly lets people know where they stand. It’s full of opportunities for professional and personal growth. The fact is, people want to make an impact on the culture that they live and work in. If everything they do is for someone else, they will always have a sense of dissatisfaction about their own roles. Charismatic cultures give people a sense of meaning in their lives. When they act on their own behalf they make a greater contribution and have a greater investment
in the organization.

• You’re moody. There are few guarantees in a global, information driven economy. The world we live and work in is unpredictable and has become even more so since September 11. Therefore, the last thing employees want is an emotionally unpredictable (i.e., “moody”) leader. They will gravitate toward a leader who possesses an emotional core that doesn’t vary. This does not mean they want an emotionally neutral “robot.” Rather, they want is a leader whose reaction is consistent with certain events. Specifically, that means someone who reacts negatively to anything that goes against company values and positively to anything that is in line with company values. (See why it’s so important to clearly define those values?)

If you’re wondering why emotion needs to enter into the equation at all, the answer is simple: people respond to feelings, not thoughts. If you mobilize people’s feelings they will contribute to a very strong culture. If you merely mobilize their thoughts, they will hold back their “gut reaction” and fail to give you full investment. People vote with their feelings. If it doesn’t feel right, they won’t do it. And if they don’t believe that you are driven by your feelings, they won’t follow you.

Did you recognize yourself in any of these examples? If so, don’t be discouraged. Knowing the enemy is the first step toward defeating it.

“Once you’re aware of what’s holding you back, you can change your self-destructive patterns,” Shechtman concludes. “You can drill down and examine the long-buried demons that are keeping you from optimal performance in your leadership role. Eventually, you’ll be able to diminish the power of your old familiars and create healthy new ones. And once your self-imposed road blocks have been demolished, you’ll be on your way to leadership excellence and, ultimately, a more meaningful and fulfilling life.”
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