Sunday, June 12, 2016

Leadership’s Five Worst Mistakes to Avoid

Leadership is looked upon as the ultimate capability to succeed. Leadership is unique in that its success comes from the success of the teams that leaders lead. Leadership is, therefore, nothing but influencing the teams to perform to their full potential. Leaders typically possess a set of skills and attributes which they deploy in certain styles to lead the teams. Though leadership is, in part, contextual the broad set of leadership competencies remains the same. Many times leadership is based on excellence in a few attributes relative to others. The attributes of relative excellence could be any or some of the following (illustrative): conceptualization, strategy, decision making, execution, public speaking, memory, agility, perfection, empathy. The ability of the leader to influence his or her team members to succeed, based on such attributes, creates a leadership charisma.

Leadership charisma reinforces the success competencies of a leader leading to a virtuous cycle of success and charisma, in an ever increasing trajectory. Along with that comes a sense of infallibility and invincibility, fuelled by relative superiority. In some leaders it just remains as a streak and in some leaders it starts becoming a dominant stream. When the latter happens, leaders start committing certain mistakes with the assumption that their supremacy is unchallenged. This approach, in the long run, becomes counterproductive to the leaders and their organizations because, more often than not, the team comprises potential leaders who with time and given the space could step into the leader’s shoes. The sense of relative superiority, which is a result of self-perpetuating cognatic bias of a leader, prompts him or her to commit certain mistakes. Discussed below are five of the serious mistakes a leader can ever make, and should never make.

Competing with team

This is the most common mistake successful leaders make. A wise leader recognises that his direct subordinates could be better than he himself is on certain attributes and together the reporting team could be better than the leader. This awareness amongst the subordinates develops based on individual and team successes and group collaboration. A leader who is always out to prove that he is superior to his team would hardly give credit to his team for successes. A leader who is always attempting to prove his superiority over his colleagues ends up using his positional power to achieve this, given the fact that he may not be intellectually superior on all counts. There are several negative consequences of a leader competing with his team.

Firstly, the team becomes acquiescent, if not obsequious, denying the organization the benefit of collective wisdom. Secondly, it places too much power in the hands of one individual who has started trading his wisdom to aggrandisement. Thirdly, the broader organization becomes centrally driven diluting the authority and relevance of a whole team of leaders. Two things happen as a result. Potential leaders become blind followers, passive aggressors or take up early exits. By the time the leader and the Board come to realize the folly, mostly through some failures, they would find that the organization has no potential leaders. Eventually, the reputation of the leader as a concentrator of power would inhibit entry of external leadership talent.

Joker(s) in the pack

Though not very apt, the leadership team can be seen as a pack of cards utilized by the leader to win the game of business competition, majorly through skill but partly also through luck. As we know, the joker card which has no sequential or set attribute has enormous value to be used as any card to make a set or sequence. Leaders tend to have a team member who is loyal to the core and who fulfils the role of a joker in the pack for the leader. It is not uncommon even in great corporations to have a joker in the leadership pack; they do contribute to forward movement by adding their word (usually at the behest of their leader) to certain solutions desired by the leader. The trouble arises when the leader tends to have too many jokers in the pack.

Like in a card game, too many jokers in the leadership game rob the game of business any competitive strength. A leadership team filled with members of blind loyalty, even with substance, would add little to the long term strength of the company. Very soon there would be no issues to debate and no decisions to make. A leader who fills his pack with too many jokers would find it difficult to reconstitute the deck even if wisdom dawns on him because unlike the competent ones jokers tend to stay on for a lifetime! There is probably only one way to deal with an excess of jokers; offer them sinecure positions and make them lead inconsequential non-mainstream divisions.

Drawing the blinds

A company, more so its headquarters which houses its leadership team, is like a cozy home. It stays in its community (the supply base or the marketplace) but also could be a mini-community by itself. It is important for any house to draw in, from outside, sunshine and breeze so that the residents are healthy. A home may protect its residents but unless residents go out and are able to live their external life they would eventually become weak. The fate of headquarter leadership is also similar. Unless leaders undertake periodic viewing and listening tours in their fields they are likely to be isolated, and lose their touch with competitive pulse. Being blinded to realities is the worst handicap that a leader can inflict upon himself.

The third mistake leaders commit is to draw blinds on their homes, shutting out the view on and feel of outside developments. Artificial light and air conditioning may not only substitute the natural sources and be more comfortable. They may even give a false sense of control over them. They are, however, expensive and inappropriate; like artificial light can never help in vitamin D synthesis in a person as natural sunshine does. A leader who runs a headquarters that is isolated from its environment does more harm than good to the vitality of the leadership team and agility of the company. It is not enough for one or two potential leaders to foray into the environment. There must be continuous openness for all the team members.  

Decoupling with peers

A peer is someone at one’s own level. A leader, if he is hierarchy bound, and in addition has a mistaken feeling of superiority may never see anyone as his peer. It is important for a leader to appreciate that aspirant leaders who are one level below him organizationally, and even managers several levels below, can be peers based on intellectual capabilities. Organizational structures and processes are designed, despite their bureaucratic nature, provide several opportunities to couple with executives, managers and leaders of shared or overlapping processes.

The fourth mistake leaders commit is to decouple themselves from their peers despite organizational opportunities. Decoupling occurs in two ways; one is going through interactions in a mechanical manner and the second is to build silos around himself and allow other leaders to build silos around the divisions they head. Leaders who think of themselves to be superior or carry needless burdens of their weaknesses tend to deliberately decouple themselves from their peers; hierarchial or intellectual. A leader who does deliberate decoupling only downgrades his potential.

Tunnelling the vision

Leaders are charged with a rather sublime duty of conceptualizing a vision. Vision is not a definition of a future business. Vision is more an expression of how a business would build itself and endure over a really long time. Apple’s vision is to lead a digital revolution. Google’s vision is to organize all data to be useful. Microsoft’s vision is to seek diversity and inclusion in its business. Ikea’s vision is to create a better everyday life for people. Amazon’s vision is to be the world’s most customer-centric company. General Electric’s vision is to bring good things to life. Vision, in a way, represents a superordinate philosophy of a company. A leader’s differentiation will be evident in the nature of vision statement.  
The fourth mistake of a leader is to tunnel a vision; an oxymoron of sorts. Vision needs to be expansive as open sky horizon and capable of lasting in perpetuity. Expressing a vision in terms of products and businesses is a hallmark characteristics of leaders with tunnel vision. This leadership mistake restrains an organization from absorbing its fundamental purpose and establishing a perpetual connect with its stakeholders. It is not expected that a leader should develop a vision by himself. If the leader does not make the mistakes mentioned earlier he would be in a position to develop his leadership bench, bring out their inner and innate potential, and seek contributions from his team members to develop awesome vision.   

Board role

The role of apex leaders, among many other important things, is to be a model of leadership, and keep organizational processes on track. If the apex leaders, the Chief Executive Officers and other C-Suite Officers, themselves make any or all of the above five mistakes, it is difficult for others in the organization to correct such leaders. As mentioned earlier, the subordinate leaders and managers may just comply or exit. If leaders do not realize the need to avoid the five mistakes, the Board of Directors becomes the only hope.

The Board is the institutional framework that can mentor and coach the apex leaders to live their leadership role in totality, avoiding the above five mistakes. To be able to play that mentoring role, the directors on the board themselves must be seasoned and wise enough to understand the five mistakes that leaders could commit and they themselves should not have committed them. The Board’s role is not just review of performance, or even ensuring governance but is enabling the apex leader to do the right things and avoid mistakes, and reach the fullest potential.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 12, 2016


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