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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • September 24, 2023
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The Achilles' Heels of Great Leaders 

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

It’s frustrating to watch an organization hover on the verge of great success yet never fully achieve it – especially when the barrier is one that could easily be overcome.

Surprisingly enough, one of the most common causes of unfulfilled expectations in many organizations is entirely counter-intuitive - the presence of a great leader at the top


Because a track record of past success – particularly great success – breeds patterns of behavior in successful leaders that, as the organization grows and becomes more complex, slowly change from being assets into liabilities. 

What makes these Achilles’ heels even more dangerous is that the leader in question usually views them as key skills.

"One of the most common causes of unfulfilled expectations in many organizations is, counter-intuitively, the presence of a great leader at the top. " - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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Here are the four Achilles’ heels of great leaders I see most often:

1. Listening

Or more precisely, giving the appearance of listening.

I've seen it happen literally hundreds of times: a leader starts out as a genuinely good listener – attentive, curious, interested. Then as success comes – bringing with it massive demands on their time – the leader slowly, almost unbeknownst to them, learns to fake it.

Sure, they still look directly at you, 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.

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course the result is that the leader becomes more and more isolated, less well-informed, and increasingly dependent on out-of-date and therefore irrelevant data.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 to poor decisions, based on old assumptions.

The answer?

If you think this might be you, there is 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 below), they’ll keep you on track.

2. Multitasking

One of the strengths of most great leaders is their ability to be ‘in the moment’ - to focus relentlessly on the issue at hand. Another, somewhat conflicting strength is to be able to switch elegantly and frequently from topic to topic as their job as the MSE ('Most Senior Executive') requires.

As their organization grows and the demands on the leader’s time and resources are stretched further and further, guess which ‘strength’ is squeezed, and which wins out?

Typically, the leader's ability to focus gets squeezed by the need to cover so much ground. and, because of the supposed allure of decreasing the mountain of work ahead, the time-strapped leader begins to amp up on so-called 'multi-tasking': 

  • Those one-on-one meetings now seem like a good opportunity to also slide-right-delete a bunch of never-gonna-read Slack messages.
  • In group meetings, sliding outside to take a couple of snatched phone calls becomes routine.
  • Speed-scanning through documents that require ‘reading’ can be done at almost any time.

Except it 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.

My personal rule is 'screens or faces' - 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

Ah, 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 organization 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 were – but because you’re the big kahuna, no one is telling you.

Here's my challenge to you:

Take a wander out to whatever the front line is in your organization (or better yet, send someone else out to do it - like a secret shopper - someone whose authority won't intimidate those they're speaking to into mangling the truth) and find out if that last decision you made (about shipping terms, or inventory management, or brand extension or the new music ministry - YMWV) really did work in practice.

Or, is it 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 re-contextualize a phrase from my friend Marshall Goldsmith) that while making snap decisions got you here, it won’t get your organization there

4. Manipulation 

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 undoubtedly one of the key skills that helped you get your organization to where it is today.

At some point, you realized that you’re so good at communicating and motivating others that you could short-circuit the process. You learned how, when really pushed for time, to avoid the lengthy process of collaboration and getting buy-in, and instead simply manipulate others (pleasantly, non-threateningly) to do what you wanted, no questions asked.

You did it rarely, though – only when you really had to. And no-one got hurt.

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 they are increasingly doing the same thing themselves to the people around them.

Before you know it, the culture of the organization is diluting, everyone is triangulating with everyone else, 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.

Are you manipulating instead of motivating? Here’s the acid test:

When people are manipulated into doing something, they do it – but only just – they’ll extend little or none of their discretionary effort in doing so.

When they’re motivated, they’ll happily expend discretionary effort - they'll not just implement, they'll do it with with intelligence and imagination. 

So here's the question: How often recently has your team taken an idea of yours and not only implemented it, but together have enthusiastically honed it and improved upon it?

If the answer is ‘rarely’, chances are you’ve slipped into default manipulation mode.  

What about you? What's your leadership achilles heel?

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!


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