The #1 attribute most leaders don't possess, which causes failure.
by Todd Mitchem
After coaching hundreds of leaders across many different types of companies that range from Fortune 500 to startups, I've learned that there is one crucial leadership issue which comes up for most people I advise. This gap in skill is not a problem specific to men or women. Instead, it's a universal issue with most leaders for reasons that may surprise you.
How leaders are made
When someone becomes a leader for the first time, it's usually because they were competent in their last role with the company, or because they graduated with some credential which deemed them worthy in the eyes of their employer. Once they have a title attached to their names something odd happens; assumption. The company assumes each new leader is capable of demonstrating quality leadership. The leader believes that he or she should not engage in asking questions for fear of looking stupid, so they drudge along making up their leadership style as they go with a high degree of wasted trial and error. This gap in understanding and focus leads to frustration by the leader, lost productivity by the company and for those who report to such a captain, more frustration.
Then companies exhaustively and expensively engage in leadership development, which becomes dire because throughout a professional's career no one thought to ask them to take a moment to focus on this issue. For over 15 years I have coached, trained and been a leader. The same was true for me at the start of my leadership career, but now I am tuned into the type of leader I am and the one I still wish to become. So, what causes most leaders to falter? It's quite simple, yet complex at the same time.
Lack of leadership philosophy
If you are a leader, ask yourself right now, "What is your leadership philosophy?" Do you even know what a philosophy is or how to get one? Webster's dictionary defines "philosophy" as the basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual. Think about that definition. "The basic beliefs and attitudes" is a statement which rings loud because it seems so simple. Yet most leaders (9 out of 10) that I have asked in coaching sessions cannot articulate to me their philosophy when I inquire. Why? Because they operate on habitual behavior, learned over time, rather than by thoughtful, intentional conduct based on core beliefs and a great understanding of what guides their decision making. All leaders need to take time to understand what their fundamental beliefs are around leadership. Instead of fumbling along, every person in a management role should, right now, be asking themselves about the major influencers in their lives. It's not the work that impacts our experience the most; it's the life we have lived which most affects our job as leaders.
What drives you?
If you have ever attended one of my keynote presentations or been a coaching client of mine, you have heard the story of Tom. I won't tell you the whole story here but feel free to read it in its entirety on my blog. In essence, Tom was a VP who wanted to be an SVP. He was a passionate, smart and capable leader, but did not understand his leadership philosophy or how his past as a child impacted his style of directing others. He would yell, get impatient and overall shred people who he thought were being overly critical of him. It was this major flaw which stunted his growth potential. After a few sessions, Tom finally began to search his past to find some harrowing childhood experiences which were driving his adult life. Once we worked for a few sessions to more intentionally define his new leadership philosophy, he quickly became a star performer and graduated to SVP within six months of our coaching sessions.
Knowing or developing leadership philosophy does not only hinge on the past experiences encountered but also modeling leadership philosophy after other admired leaders is critical. For this part, I suggest the people I coach list three leaders they respect. Then they must dissect what each leader does in behavior that is worth mimicking. Modeling another person's core actions, their philosophy and applying these to the leader's work is a next step to molding the clay of lasting performance.
A word of caution, however, don't toss the baby out with the bathwater at this stage of the work. What I mean is all humans are flawed. It's ok to admire certain traits of a leader, regardless of some other seemingly lousy behavior. Am I saying people should love everything about a leader like Henry Ford, even though he was a professed anti-semite? NO! We can despise that fault in his character and still adopt his philosophy around tenacity, seeking a problem to its end or his unwavering belief in the impossible. We live in a culture that often tries to destroy the entire person or their legacy simply because of other faults found to be intolerable. Be smart, find traits you admire and toss out the rest.
Lastly and briefly, be teachable. One of my biggest lessons for all I work with is to live in a constant state of teachability. In other words, you are never done with growth or learning. Until your life is extinguished, you never reach a finish line. The good news for the teachable however is, they never get it done and they never truly get it wrong. To the teachable leader, failure is learning, a struggle is learning, and success is learning.
If you lead or hire leaders, take a moment after reading this article to seriously consider either your philosophy around leadership or the one the company utilizes as a whole. This exercise goes far deeper than merely drafting a few words like, thoughtful, careful, empathetic. While these are excellent descriptions of aspects we all should possess, they are not our philosophy. I suggest you get very detailed about how you lead, what drives your decisions, who you model, and what you need to change so that your intentional style emerges. And before ANY company hires another leader, the hiring professional should require of a leader clear articulation of their philosophy. If they don't know it how on earth are people who work for them supposed to follow it?
Leaders are made. They are cultivated over time. Using the right tools as soon as possible, regardless of their level, can vastly improve results, team bonding, overall performance, as well as a greater sense of personal balance. So get to work and remember, not having a leadership philosophy, being teachable or modeling great behavior is like driving a ship in the open sea without a rudder, you end up drifting aimlessly until you crash. Either way, you sink.
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