Leadership isn’t easy, it demands a level of self-awareness, self-control and maturity that not all of us are able to muster.
In my experience of working with humans, I have noticed that they have faults. If you are not in a leadership position, maybe these faults are no big deal, but as you rise in the hierarchy and your influence broadens, the impact of those faults is amplified and the probability of them doing harm grows exponentially.
So leaders need to be vigilant about which of their traits are helpful to their leadership role, and which aren’t!
There are many ways to get leadership wrong, and I have certainly been guilty of a few of them (and am certainly guilty of a few more that I’m unaware of – and some I am aware of, it’s a work in progress …). These are linked to many different things, such as personality traits that may mismatch the context of the moment (such as Asquith’s guiding chairmanship being unsuited to the decision-making demands of World War One – more here), or personality traits that just don’t suit leadership so well, or maybe just the leader not being mature enough because leadership is – like good wine – something that often gets better with age.
Here are five immature leader types I have spotted, sadly it’s not an exhaustive list:
“I have a sixth sense,” he said, looking me in the eye, “from this office, at any moment, I can tell who in the network is performing and who isn’t …”
He paused for dramatic effect.
“… and you’re not”
Suddenly I understood why I had been unable to get into this awkward bugger’s good books over the past few years! He wasn’t looking at evidence or observing real-world performance, he was sitting in his office and leaning on his magic powers to decide what was true!
Suddenly I didn’t care what he thought, because as the great Marcelo Bielsa said:
Praise that is badly founded does not generate satisfaction, and a critic without argument does not produce sadnessMarcelo Bielsa
To be fair to him, a lot of workplace performance is difficult to objectively assess. Most leaders only ever see glimpses of what the people they lead do, and in most interactions, they will see the best side of people, and they will judge the most-polished communicators as the surest performers, because that’s what pushes our bias buttons best*.
This becomes dangerous when the leader is unable to differentiate between what is their instincts and biases, and what is reality – because from our point of view, they’re one and the same.
None of us can access objective reality directly, we can only respond (often emotionally) to however we perceive whatever data gets into our brain via our senses. We don’t see the world in front of us – our eyes send a pixelated upside-down partial view with a blind spot in the middle to our brains – “we” (i.e our conscious selves) then “see” whatever heavily-edited version of reality our brain decides to project within that consciousness.
Good leaders realise this. They know their instincts may contain nuggets of golden wisdom, so they are not to be discounted, but they also know that their instincts are wildly unreliable.
As Ryan Holiday said:
Because our senses are often wrong, our emotions overly alarmed, our projections overly optimistic, we’re better off not rushing into conclusions about anythingRyan Holiday (in The Daily Stoic)
The Mystic is the leader who thinks their instincts are reality, that because they are hierarchically superior, they are somehow closer to touching the truth.
We shall represent them with a crystal ball:
The Mystic confidently says things like “There is a feeling that the team isn’t doing well,” externalising the instinct (the “feeling”) so that it now exists out there in the world, and no amount of “why do you think that? Is there any evidence?” can shift them because they just know … instinct isn’t always wrong, our instincts are great for asking questions, but they’re no good at giving answers.
This is why a good leader would turn that nagging doubt into a question with something like “I have a feeling that the team isn’t doing well, am I right?” and be willing to talk it through, and potentially face up to the fact that their instincts are often more about them than they are about the reality they claim to observe.
“Under-promise and over-deliver, that’s my motto,” I once heard said as leadership advice.
I shuddered …
“Why do you use that approach?” I asked.
Did he really think it was wise to set expectations so low that a mediocre outcome would look better than it really was? Wasn’t this just a conjuring trick? Leadership by smoke and mirrors?
Didn’t he have the confidence to be direct and truthful, to reach for a challenging objective, and then strive to deliver it? Wasn’t this just a form of deception?
It reminded me of my kids trying to position my Overton Window down to a D grade so when they came home from school clutching a C it would look so much better.
It might work up to a point, if there’s no one else to compare you to and if no one really knows your business, but there’s only so many times you can pull a rabbit from a hat before we start to suspect you have some rabbits up your sleeve and the trick wears a little thin.
“Er … always surprise them …” was all he could say, showing a lack of understanding of how surprises work.
The Conjurer’s symbol is a magician’s hat:
A good leader would be straightforward and honest, they would be clear about the risks, and would strive to deliver to an ambitious – but realistic – objective.
“It’s us against the world! Everyone hates us! Everything’s a competition and we must win … ” … this might work if you’re Sir Alex Ferguson† and you’re motivating a sports team to stay at the top of their game, but in most organisations, this confrontational approach to leadership is unprofessional and immature.
Some fun competition can be fine, but if it impedes collaboration or compromises honesty, then it’s doing more harm than good.
I worked for a network of teams who were played off against each other, encouraged to compete through the monthly statistical report, simplistic performance judgements were made based on numbers in tables and graph on slides … it wasn’t long before the leaders in the network were undermining each other, whispering trash talk into the boss’s ear at every opportunity.
Another boss thrived on confrontation and continually fought distracting battles against whoever he could, turning everything in tribal warfare because that’s more interesting and most jobs just aren’t so satisfying for the beast within … everything was a crisis, a fight, a competition, and he thrived on the energy of it.
Most human organisations work best when there is high-quality communication and collaboration. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for competition, but it must be used cleverly and cautiously: to twist the old joke about being chased by a lion, competition is when I only need to outrun you, collaboration is when we both get to outrun the lion.
The Warrior is represented by crossed swords:
A good leader will focus on building honest and open communication and look for opportunities to collaborate rather erecting walls to define tribes, and … yes, in some cases, create opportunities to compete, but only where that competition leads to the right outcomes.
The Diva sees their leadership role as a stage and themselves as the star. Leadership is not about influencing, inspiring and empowering others to create valuable outcomes for the organisation, leadership is about showcasing the Diva’s budding stand-up comedy skills, or a platform for them to wow the room with their skilled rhetoric … in short, leadership is about power for the extra attention it brings.
You might hear Diva leaders banging on because there’s a silence needing to be filled rather than something needing to be said, they will consider the sound of their own voice so intoxicating that it absolutely must be heard above all others … having something worthwhile to say, or making space for others to contribute, is not even on their radar.
A good leader knows they have a higher profile than others, but they understand that leadership is not about the leader, it’s about the ship (as I talked about here).
Their Royal Highness
Last, but not (especially not in their eyes) least, are the special ones … those who have mistaken the organisational hierarchy for the feudal system. Their Royal Highnesses have erroneously assumed that their exalted leadership position means they must be treated like royalty.
You might hear them say things like “you don’t speak to management like that” because “management” is a better class of person, ergo “management” can talk to you like that, but you can’t talk to “management” like that … oh get over yourself, everyone deserves to be treated with respect, whether they are “management” or not!
Perhaps this attitude comes from the schoolroom, where authority is more important than ethics – teachers can throw the board rubber at the child, but not the other way around (that’s another story) – or from the similar parent-child relationship where the adult gets to decide what’s true and what’s not, and contradiction is not allowed on status grounds, rendering facts second to hierarchy … whatever the source, it doesn’t apply to professional relationships between adults in the workplace.
Let’s represent them with a crown:
A good leader will treat everyone, regardless of their slot in the hierarchy, with the same respect because even though some people have a bigger job than others, they are all still people and it’s only work, so let’s just all calm down a bit.
* What I call gab bias: we overvalue the contribution of the people who communicate best.
† If I remember correctly, Sir Alex was the highly successful leader of a Salford-based soccer franchise whose name escapes me.