Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:
It’s an oft-quoted leadership trope that because of his sin in striking the rock twice, Moses never lived to see his people into the Promised Land.
That role fell instead to Joshua – despite Moses having dedicated his life to paving the way, including those 40 years spent in the wilderness. Business leaders can, sadly, befall the same fate – call it the Never-Gonna-Get-There Leader.
The saddest part is that for these perennially unfulfilled leaders, unlike Moses, there’s no real reason why it should be so – except for their own self imposed limitations.
I coach a lot of fine individuals – people in organizations who are working hard to be the best leader they can be, both for themselves and for those they lead. It’s an almost unalloyed pleasure, marred only by the frustration caused by watching those few who self-destruct every time they near success.
There are a lot of hyphenated leaders. Wanna-be leaders, Always-on leaders, Glory-Grabbing leaders – but there’s no-one so heartbreaking to work with as a Never-Gonna-Get-There leader: someone who rises again and again to the very edge of success, only, as in some twisted version of chutes and ladders, to fall back solely as a result of their own subconscious, success-restricting traits.
Here are the three main categories of Never-Gonna-Get-There leader, and, if you recognize yourself or a colleague amongst them, how to avoid Moses's fate:
1. The Epiphany Junkie
- The trendy new book absolutely everybody must read.
- The new ‘social’ tool we gotta dominate.
- The perfect sales page layout that will send hidden ‘buy’ messages on our web site…
That’s the Epiphany Junkie, dropping the latest in their rapidly accumulating grab bag of realizations / discoveries / imperatives.
Problem is, while they think they’re confirming the fact of their genius, and leading their team to even greater heights of brilliance, the team is in reality simply being distracted from getting on with what’s really important.
If you fear you might be an Epiphany Junkie, here's how to self-diagnose: Write down the last, say, four epiphanies you dropped on your team. Then consider these two questions:
(1) How easy was it for you to come up with that list of four 'epiphanies'? If it was fairly-to-moderately easy, then you're likely an Epiphany Junkie (most people might have one epiphany a year). If it was moderately to very hard to do so, then move on to question 2.
(2) How many of those four epiphanies had real, permanent, positive impact on your organization? If it's two or less, it's likely you're an Epiphany Junkie.
And if you are an Epiphany Junkie, what's the answer? Well, try this: When you next come back from that conference, or read that book, or stumble on a stunning meme in your tweetstream, keep it to yourself. Just shut up about it for at least two weeks.
If it’s truly important - if it really is an epiphany - you’ll see ways to integrate it quietly and seamlessly into what your team is doing. If it isn’t important, you’ll have found something new to fixate on soon enough.
2. The Strategy Yanker
“We’re going to grow the top line by 50% over the next two years.”
A month later: “Growth can’t be our main objective. We’re must focus on customer service.”
Six weeks later: “Profitability is everything. We’re going to deliver a 25% increase on EBITDA.”
That’s the Strategy Yanker, pulling their organization from pillar to post in a self-imposed search for the perfect plan for success, straining everyone’s patience, draining their team's motivation, and rapidly losing credibility by forcing everyone to listen to the next whiplash change of direction.
The fundamental problem with the Strategy Yanker is that they’re usually intelligent people – so all of the proposed (and subsequently ditched) strategies are valid. Validity isn't the problem - it's consistency. If only they would choose one - any one - of these strategies and stick with it.
If working with an Epiphany Junkie is like getting into a car with a driver who changes the destination every time they think of somewhere better to go, then working with a Strategy Yanker is like getting into a car with a driver who knows where they want to go - but can't make their mind up as to which route to take. You end up hopping from one route to another, then changing to another, never getting any closer to where you actually want to go.
The answer? A dose of the bleeding obvious. Pick a route, any route, and stick with it. Choose a valid medium term strategy and stick with it. If you can’t, step aside from leadership before you seriously hurt some people.
3. The Hero to Zero Myopic
Leadership isn’t a solitary occupation – by definition, a leader leads others. Those ‘others’ are exactly like you and me – varied, competent in some areas, not so hot in others, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, all of us trying to travel north in a southbound lane.
Some Never-Gonna-Get-There leaders refuse to see people as they really are. Instead, they view everyone as either spectacularly great (‘She’s the best salesperson I’ve ever seen‘) or woefully dreadful (‘I can’t bear having him around me. Get him out of my sight.‘) – often changing their opinion of a person from one extreme to the other literally overnight.
This is the Hero-to-Zero Myopic - a leader who places unsustainable expectations on others (often a newly arrived wunderkind hire), then fails to provide short-term feedback as the new hire at first slowly, then increasingly rapidly, falls out of favor as they underperform against the unrealistic initial expectations made of them.
Eventually the Hero-to-Zero Myopic's perception of the 'wunderkind' curdles into negativity, then irritation, and finally into the dour ritual of an 'I don't think this is working for us' separation discussion.
Sound like you? Been through the 'Hero-to-Zero' arc once too often? If so, you need to take responsibility for fixing the hiring function - specifically,
- hiring to clear, overtly defined 'must-have' skills and behaviors and not just your personal 'sense of fit';
- providing a solid onboarding process; and
- staying close to your new hires in the early weeks and months, mentoring and coaching them to success.
Put frankly, you need to put yourself in a position where having a ‘zero’ on the team is clearly, transparently no-one else’s fault but yours. Because chances are, it already is.