Three Deadly Sins of Leadership

by ianmckenzie on May 2, 2013

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Some time ago a magazine writer asked me a probing question. She asked, “In your opinion and experience, what are the three most destructive things a leader can do to wreck an organization?” Actually, it’s a profound question with many possible significant answers. I considered both effective and ineffective leaders I had encountered in my business experience. I pondered what could be, in my opinion, the three worst things a leader could do. Although many different things came to mind, I settled on three attributes that I had personally observed, or been subjected to, as being most destructive from a strategic point of view. It was necessary to discount numerous tactical behaviors that may appear destructive at the moment, but in the large scheme pale by comparison to the more strategic negative behaviors.

A few of the leadership behaviors I considered before I gave my final answers included such things as poor communication skills, poor delegation skills, poor team building skills, too much tactical thinking, poor coaching skills, poor empowerment skills, and poor feedback skills. Any of these behaviors could be the three worst leadership behaviors, but I opted instead for things that I had personally observed as being highly destructive to not only people, but also to things, activities and processes.

My three answers were: 1) Personal Arrogance, 2) Inflexible Position, and 3) a belief in Self-Resolution. Inasmuch as these three attributes constitute a wide range of specific behaviors, permit me to describe each one in more detail.

1. Personal Arrogance. Another way to describe arrogance is pride. Although there are clearly good aspects of being proud, pride can also be a handicap to effective leadership. First, let’s look at the good side of pride. Leaders, managers and individual contributors can take pride in their job, an assignment, a task, or even a procedure. And such pride can be a motivator to perform well, thoroughly, and with a high degree of quality. So taking pride in one’s job can be a positive attribute for any worker.

But unfortunately, there is a negative side to personal pride that I call unhealthy pride. When a person uses pride to the determent of others, then it can be a destructive rather than positive trait. Ezra Taft Benson said, “The proud make [people] their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents or any other device against others.” In the words of C.S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next [person]. It is the comparison that makes [a person] proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition [or comparison] has gone, pride has gone.” So at the heart of unhealthy pride is judging oneself as superior to others.

The truth is that pride is often a liability that people often see in other people, long before they are willing to admit that it exists in themselves. This makes the proud unteachable, untouchable, and often unreachable when it comes to leadership development. Excessive pride in a leader can create executive isolation and insulation where lines of communication are disrupted at the most, or faulty at the least.

It is executive pride and the lack of personal humility that causes a leader to be convinced that his or her decisions are infallible and unchallengeable. Over time this creates in an organization a climate of fear, blind obedience and compartmentalization. Organizational compartmentalization occurs when workers feel most safe with their chin on their chest doing only what is necessary to keep from being disciplined or fired. There is in this dysfunctional climate no creativity, empowerment, risk taking, or free speech. Decision quality is, therefore, very poor. Chin on chest mentality negates the possibility of employees thinking or acting in a strategic manner.

2. Inflexible Position. I currently teach leadership development workshops for several clients. Within these courses is a module titled, “Flexible Leadership.” The primary learning point of the module is helping leaders understand that “one size does not fit all.” People are individuals and situations are situational. So when a leader approaches a situation in an organization he or she must demonstrate enough flexibility of position and ability to treat each person and situation differently. Rigid thinking and inflexible positions typically shut down lines of communication.

It’s surprising how many leaders become dogmatic with their personal opinions, preferences and biases and as a result struggle with flexibility and adaptability. This might relate to unhealthy personal pride, or it could be insecurity, or it might even be inexperience. Whatever the cause, holding fast to an opinion or belief in the face of unconsidered different courses of action seriously limits decision quality. We know from mountains of evidence that decision quality usually follows a path of divergent thinking, following by facilitated convergent thinking. Stated another way, the best idea usually follows many considered ideas. Conversely, the worst idea often follows a leader’s unwillingness to consider the ideas of others.

3. Problem Self-Resolution. Several years ago a large portion of my consulting practice was helping organizations implement a system of process improvement. While assisting literally hundreds of functional and cross-functional teams as they endeavored to create and modify organizational processes, I observed an all too often tendency of some leaders who were supposed to empower the teams. These ineffective sponsors of teams had a belief that if a problem was left alone long enough that it might spontaneously fix itself. Some of these leaders clearly lacked enough courage to confront broken processes and uncooperative employees. Others just didn’t want to upset the apple cart, so they would drag their heels in challenging and motivating teams.

Jack Welch said, “Leaders must face reality as it is and not as they may have constructed it.” The reality is that very few organizational process problems ever fix themselves to an effective level. Rather, most problems dealing with people and processes typically get worse over time, not better. Indeed, sometimes problems may go on vacation for a short time and give the appearance of being resolved, but a few weeks later they crop back up with even more steam.

Effective leaders must have the courage and ability to recognize problems when they occur, acknowledge that they need to be resolved, and work diligently to make them go away. Anything less than that will add fuel to the fire and the problems will grow into major disruptions.

Summary

I am unaware of what happened to the information I gave to the writer who asked for my list of the worst leader behaviors. Perhaps it ended up in a book, leadership development class, article, or trashcan, I don’t know. Nonetheless, the exercise of deciding on three negative attributes gave me an opportunity to consider not only good leader behaviors, but also the bad ones as well.

Perhaps the lesson in this article is to ask the following questions: “Am I guilty of any of these ineffective behaviors? Do I diligently create a climate for my followers that is open, honest, positive, motivating, and beneficial to both people and the organization? Am I willing to self-assess my effectiveness and make appropriate changes?” Give it some thought and tell me what you think.

Dr. Richard L. Williams is a business consultant specializing in leadership development, organizational development/diagnostics, performance coaching, quality improvement, and team development. If you would like to learn more about Leadership Development, contact Dr. Rick Williams or the CMOE team or contact us at 888-262-2499.

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