It’s important to realize that just because someone holds a position of leadership, doesn’t necessarily mean they should. Put another way, not all leaders are created equal. The problem many organizations are suffering from is a recognition problem – they can’t seem to recognize good leaders from bad ones. In today's column I’ll address how to identify bad leaders by pointing out a few things that should be obvious, but apparently aren’t.
If I only had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked, “is there a simple test that can quickly determine an executive’s leadership ability?” The short answer is yes, but keep in mind, simple and fast aren’t always the same thing as effective. There are a plethora of diagnostic tests, profiles, evaluations, and assessments that offer insights into leadership ability, or a lack thereof. My problem with these efforts is they are overly analytical, very theoretical, and very often subject to bias. That said, they are fast, easy, and relatively inexpensive. The good news is, there is a better way to assess leadership ability. If you really want to determine someone’s leadership prowess, give them some responsibility and see what they do with it. Leaders produce results. It’s not always pretty, especially in the case of inexperienced leaders, but good leaders will find a way to get the job done.
In a previous piece entitled Looking For Leadership, I share a number of concerns about corporate America’s obsession over leadership assessments. There's a not so subtle abdication of responsibility that has occurred as rationalizations take place around DISC scores, or justifications surrounding a 360 review are used to defend an ineffective leader. My question is this: what about real world tests? If your enterprise has trouble identifying leaders, or has a shortage of leaders, you don’t have a testing problem – you have a leadership problem. One of the primary responsibilities of leadership is to create more and better leaders. I believe it was John Maxwell who said, “there is no success without a successor.”
Go ahead, test if you must, but paying attention to the following 15 items (listed in no particular order) will be much more practical, accurate, and effective. If your organization has leaders who fail to grasp the concepts outlined below, you may want to stop testing them, ranking them, and promoting them - instead consider developing them or exiting them.
1.Leaders who can't see it, probably won't find it: Leaders without vision will fail. Leaders who lack vision cannot inspire teams, motivate performance, or create sustainable value. Poor vision, tunnel vision, vision that is fickle, or a non-existent vision will cause leaders to fail. A leader’s job is to align the organization around a clear and achievable vision. This cannot occur when the blind lead the blind.
2. When leaders fail to lead themselves: A leader who lacks character or integrity will not endure the test of time. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, affable, persuasive, or savvy a person is, if they are prone to rationalizing unethical behavior based upon current or future needs, they will eventually fall prey to their own undoing. Optics over ethics is not a formula for success.
3. Put-up or shut-up: Nothing smacks of poor leadership like a lack of performance. Nobody is perfect, but leaders who consistently fail are not leaders, no matter how much you wish they were. While past performance is not always a certain indicator of future events, a long-term track record of success should not be taken lightly. Someone who has consistently experienced success in leadership roles has a much better chance of success than someone who has not. It’s important to remember unproven leaders come with a high risk premium. Smart companies recognize potential, but they reward performance.
4. Beware the know-it-all: The best leaders are acutely aware of how much they don't know. They have no need to be the smartest person in the room, but have the unyielding desire to learn from others. I've often said, leaders who are not growing cannot lead a growing enterprise. One of the hallmarks of great leaders is their insatiable curiosity. If a leader isn't extremely curious about every aspect of their organization, trust me when I say there are huge problems on the horizon.
5. When there's a failure to communicate: When leaders are constantly flummoxed by those who don't seem to get it, there exists both a leadership and communications problem. Show me a leader with poor communication skills and I’ll show you someone who will be short-lived in their position. Great leaders can communicate effectively across mediums, constituencies, and environments. They are active listeners, fluid thinkers, and know when to dial it up, down, or off.
6. It's all about them: If a leader doesn’t understand the concept of “service above self” they will not engender the trust, confidence, and loyalty of those they lead. Any leader is only as good as his or her team’s desire to be led by them. An over abundance of ego, pride, and arrogance are not positive leadership traits. Real leaders take the blame and give the credit - not the other way around. Long story short; if a leader receives a vote of non-confidence from their subordinates…game over.
7. Sing a little Kumbaya: While love and leadership are certainly two words you don’t often hear in the same sentence, I can assure you that rarely does great leadership exist without love being present and practiced. In fact, if you examine failed leaders as a class, you’ll find that a lack of love, misplaced love, or misguided love were a contributing cause of said failures, if not the root cause. Empathy, humility and kindness are signs of leadership strength - not weakness.
8. One size fits all leadership style: The best leaders are fluid and flexible in their approach. They understand the power of, and necessity for contextual leadership. “My way or the highway” leadership styles don’t play well in today’s world, will result in a fractured culture, and ultimately a non-productive organization. Only those leaders who can quickly recognize and adapt their methods to the situation at hand will be successful over the long haul. Think open-source not proprietary, surrender not control, and collaborate not dictate.
9. Lack of focus: Leadership is less about balance and more about priority. The best leaders are ruthless in their pursuit of focus. Those leaders who lack the focus and attention to detail needed to apply leverage and resources in an aggressive and committed fashion will perish. Leaders who are not intentional and are not focused, will fail themselves and their team. Leaders who lack discipline will model the wrong behaviors and will inevitably spread themselves too thin. Organizations are at the greatest risk when leaders lose their focus. Intentions must be aligned with results for leaders to be effective.
10. Death by comfort zone: The best organizations beat their competition to the future, and the best leaders understand how to pull the future forward. Leaders satisfied with the status quo, or those who tend to be more concerned about survival than growth won’t do well over the long-run. The best leaders are focused on leading change and innovation to keep their organizations fresh, dynamic and growing. Bottom line – leaders who build a static business doom themselves to failure.
11. Not paying attention to the consumer: Leaders not attuned to the needs of the market will fail. As the old saying goes, if you’re not taking care of your customers, someone else will be more than happy to. Successful leaders focus on the consumer experience, which in turn leads to satisfaction and loyalty. The best leaders find ways to consistently engage the consumer and incorporate them into their innovation and planning initiatives. If you ignore, mistreat, or otherwise don’t value your customer base, your days as a leader are most certainly numbered.
12. Get Invested: Leaders not fully committed to investing in those they lead will fail. The best leaders support their team, build into their team, mentor and coach their team, and they truly care for their team. A leader not fully invested in their team won’t have a team – at least not an effective one. Never forget the old saying, people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care - words to live by for leaders.
13. The "A" word: Real leaders are accountable. They don’t blame others, don’t claim credit for the success of their team, but always accept responsibility for failures that occur on their watch. Most of all, leaders are accountable to their team. I’ve always said that leaders not accountable to their people will eventually be held accountable by their people.
14. It's the culture stupid: The lesson here is that culture matters – forget this and all other efforts with regard to talent initiatives will be dysfunctional, if not altogether lost. Don’t allow your culture to evolve by default, create it by design. The first step in cultural design is to be very, very careful who you let through the front door. People, their traits, attitudes, and work ethic (or lack thereof) are contagions. This can be positive or negative – the choice is yours. The old saying, “talent begets talent” is true, but talent that aligns with culture will produce better results than talent that does not.
15. Show some chutzpa: Leadership absent courage is a farce. I'm not referring to arrogance or bravado, but real courage. It takes courage to break from the norm, challenge the status quo, seek new opportunities, cut your losses, make the tough decision, listen rather than speak, admit your faults, forgive the faults of others, not allow failure to dampen your spirit, stand for those not capable of standing for themselves, and to remain true to your core values. You can do none of these things without courage. Courage is having the strength of conviction to do the right thing when it would just be easier to do things right.
The moral of this story is leaders need to be honest, have a demonstrated track record of success, be excellent communicators, place an emphasis on serving those they lead, be fluid in approach, have laser focus, and a bias toward action. If these traits are not possessed by your current leadership team, or your emerging leaders, you will be in for a rocky road ahead…
Which of these traits stand out to you? Do you have any other signs of ineffective leaders worthy of mention? Leave a comment and share your insights with others…
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