The 4 Achilles' Heels of Great Leaders
A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
It’s frustrating to watch a business hover on the verge of great success yet never fully achieve it – even more so when the barrier to its success could be relatively easily surmounted.
One of the most common causes of unfulfilled expectations in many organizations is, surprisingly enough, the presence of a great leader at the top. Why? Because a track record of past success – particularly great success – breeds patterns of behavior in successful leaders that, as the business grows and becomes more complex, change from being assets into liabilities – Achilles’ heels that are even more dangerous because the leader in question usually views them as key skills.
Here are the four most common Achilles’ heels of great leaders:
Or more precisely, giving the appearance of listening. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times: a business leader starts out as a genuinely good listener – attentive, curious, interested. Then as success comes – bringing with it massive demands on their time – as a protection the leader learns to fake it.
Sure, they still nod and say ‘uh-huh’ at the appropriate moments; they still wrinkle their brow and appear engrossed – they may even up the ante on shoulder-holding and eye contact – but the reality is that they’re paying attention less, and processing less of what they do hear.
And of course, the result is that the leader becomes more and more isolated, less well informed, and increasingly dependent on out-of-date and therefore irrelevant data – all of which leads in turn to poor decisions, based on old assumptions.
The answer? If you think this might be you, there’s a simple fix – at the end of every substantive interaction, repeat back to the other party a summary of discussion, then ask this simple question: “Is there anything I’ve missed or misunderstood?” So long as you’re not intimidating the people you work with (see point 4), they’ll keep you on track.
One of the strengths of most great leaders is their ability to get through a huge volume of work. Another is the ability to be ‘in the moment’ and to focus relentlessly on the issue at hand.
As the business grows and the demands on a leader’s time and resources are stretched further and further, guess which ‘strength’ wins out? Multitasking, because of the supposed allure of decreasing the mountain of work ahead (an illusion, in fact, as you have no doubt experienced), begins to encroach more and more on the leader’s ability to focus on a singular issue.
Those one-on-one meetings now seem like a good opportunity to also sign off on a bunch of ‘routine’ memos. Darting outside to take a couple of snatched phone calls during a meeting becomes routine. Speed-scanning through documents that require ‘reading’ can be done at almost any time.
Except they can’t. Not only does the quality of your decision-making suffer inordinately, worse, your credibility takes a beating as everyone in the organization realizes that you’re not really ‘present’ anymore.
Try this as a first step: Only multitask when you’re on your own – doing computer work or plowing through documents. Discipline yourself to engage fully when you’re with others, and you’ll see the quality of your decision-making shoot up.
3. Making Snap Decisions
Ahh, experience and judgment: the two skills that most got you where you are today. You’re renowned in the past for nailing it – quickly assimilating data, appraising the situation and calling the play – and getting it right, more often than not.
Except that because your business has grown, there’s way more data now than you can possibly assimilate as quickly as you once did. So your snap decisions aren’t as dependable as they once where – but because you’re the big kahuna, no one is telling you.
Take a wander down to the front line (or send someone else out to do it, like a secret shopper) and find out if that last decision you made (about shipping terms, or inventory management or brand extension) really did work in practice, or if it’s just sitting there, a clunky, half-implemented, mostly resented piece of irrelevancy that everyone is trying their best to ignore.
You may well find that (to borrow a phrase from my friend Marshall Goldsmith) that while making snap decisions got you here, it won’t get you there.
You’re (rightly) proud of your communication skills. Your ability to paint a vision and to communicate it in a way that motivates others to help you realize it, is at the core of who you are. It’s also one of the key skills that helped you get your organization to where it is today.
Early on, you realized that you’re so good at communicating and motivating others that you could short-circuit the process, avoiding the lengthy process of collaboration and getting buy in, and instead simply manipulate others to do what you wanted, no questions asked. You did it rarely, though – only when you really had to.
Now, as success has brought a hugely increased workload, there simply isn’t the time any more to truly motivate others, and you’ve slipped into using manipulation as a default. The people around you have noticed, of course, and are increasingly doing the same thing themselves. The culture of the organization is diluting, and cynicism is replacing authenticity. Worst of all, because it is happening slowly (but ineluctably), like the proverbial frog in boiling water, you haven’t noticed.
Here’s the acid test: When people are manipulated into doing something they do it – but only just – they’ll extend the bare minimum of effort in doing so. When they’re motivated, they’ll implement with intelligence and imagination. How often recently has your team taken an idea of yours and not only implemented it, but together have honed it and improved upon it?
If the answer is ‘rarely’, chances are you’ve slipped into default manipulation mode.