Four enemies of great leadership

barbed wire - enemies of great leadership

Every time I work with a leader, I write down everything they do in my notebook. This includes what they eat, what they say and everything they do. Even when they go to the toilet. Sometimes, I find it difficult to get work done because I’m constantly writing in my notebook.

But, over the years, I’ve seen a number of common traits in the best leaders I’ve worked with. However, I’ve also noticed factors that create the opposite of great leadership. These are the enemies of great leadership. They prevent a leader from acting with integrity or rationality. These are factors that prevent great leadership from happening. Rather than being enablers, they are disablers.

Great leadership enemy #1. One-sided personal relationships

Strong personal relationships can be fantastic for a leader. To be useful, relationships have to be two-way. One-sided relationships can be detrimental, because they involve too much take, and not enough give.

Example: The poor performer who is protected by the boss

One example is leaders who tolerate poor performing or dysfunctional employees simply because they’ve known them for a long time and developed a strong relationship. These leaders turn a blind eye to poor performance so that they can keep their friends safe. If you’re a leader who is consistently having to defend the actions of one of your team, but refuse to address the issue, then you’ll be suffering from serious reputation damage.

When people see you favouring someone who doesn’t deserve it, they see you as a weak leader. They may not have the full story, but remember that perception is often reality!

Example: Hiring all your friends

Another example are those leaders who try to bring in former colleagues from previous workplaces. Rather than going through a fair process of recruitment, the friends will be given a position with little competition. Leaders who do this run a reputation risk of being seen to be “looking out for their mates” or creating “jobs for the boys” (or girls).

Your former colleague could be the best in the world, but people around you are watching. They don’t know your colleague and they will suspect the worst. This means your new hire will need to work doubly hard to shake off the tag that they aren’t worthy of their new job. And you’ll be seen as using your leadership position to get around the rules. Rules that were introduced to stop hiring people who were no good…

Example: Helping vendors sell their products

I’ve come across several situations where leaders have brought in previous suppliers to work in their new company. This is rife in the IT industry, where new systems are sometimes introduced because of strong personal relationships, rather than necessarily being fit for purpose. Usually, “it worked great at my last company” isn’t quite enough to ensure success.

Once again, the reputation hit can be considerable when you subvert normal processes using your leadership status. If the product or service really was the best, it should stand up to a more formal assessment or tender process.

In all these examples, a leader is giving others a helping hand. As the leader, you really need to ask yourself whether you are being used. Or are you getting something back in return?

Even so, leveraging your leadership status for special favours that may not be backed by business process or logic can be damaging for your reputation. People aren’t likely to see this behaviour as great leadership.

Great leadership enemy #2. Needing the job too much

We’ve all seen them. The leaders who obtain a high-paying senior role, are out of their depth, but aren’t going anywhere. They fight tooth and nail to retain their positions, playing politics and throwing people under the bus. People around them wonder how they are still employed. Something must exist that stops them getting fired, but nobody knows what it is.

If you need a job too much, for any reason, you’ve already lost a lot of your power. It may be that you have a lifestyle that requires a heap of money. Or that you are addicted to the prestige that your role brings. Perhaps it’s that fancy car you drive. You need to keep up with the Jones’, otherwise they’ll win!

Anything that reduces your ability to leave a job puts you at risk. Not to say that you should be looking to leave jobs at all times, but it can make you vulnerable. If a leader desperately needs her job and somebody tries to convince her to do something unethical, she’s at a higher risk of doing it. If a leader desperately needs his job and has to treat his team poorly to secure it, it’s more likely he’ll do it. In other words, it becomes much harder to push back on unreasonable demands.

Of course, some people will say it’s “just business”. Unfortunately, when people around you feel miserable coming to work every day, it becomes personal. You’re affecting real lives. Leaders who live within their means, save up some “screw you” money and build a strong network are not likely to need their job nearly as much. They have the potential to show great leadership.

Great leadership enemy #3. Unbridled ambition

Ambition is good. Unbridled, unfocused, “at any cost” ambition isn’t so good. Unbridled ambition can cause leaders to act in ways that damage reputation and relationships.

If you are willing to do anything to “get ahead”, you’re at risk already. Are you willing to do unethical things? What about stealing credit for other people’s work? What about murder?

Unchecked ambition can and will cause you to be viewed unfavourably in your workplace. It is almost guaranteed. No matter how good you are at acting, people will eventually see you as self-serving and devious as you try to leap-frog others to get what you want.

I’ve worked with people in the past who I used to think were great leaders. After several years of observing their behaviour in different situations, it became clear that they were often trying to manipulate people and outcomes for personal gain – no matter the reputation cost. After a while, I had trouble actually understanding who the real person was. Much of their apparent charm and friendliness seemed to be for show. To help them get what they want.

The point is – ambition is good. For me, it does matter how you get there. If I have to leave a trail of broken bodies in order to get ahead, that’s not acceptable to me. There are other ways. I might not be the most successful person in the world, but integrity is important.

Would you take lower prestige and pay for the ability to sleep better at night?

Great leadership enemy #4. An inability to take advice

I once worked on a project to build a new hospital. In this project, there was a mix of clinical people (Doctors, nurses etc), construction teams and technology workers. The construction and technology people had worked in projects many times before. They basically knew how things worked in that respect. But they sure didn’t know much about medical matters or running a hospital.

The clinical teams didn’t have project experience. In the ways of managing project scope, risk and timelines, they had little idea. To me, this sounds like a perfect recipe for teamwork. We have complementary skills and knowledge all in one spot. We can surely get a great outcome by working together, right?

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. The clinical leadership had very little respect for any advice or methods that the other teams were trying to apply. As a result, frustration was rife. The projects weren’t structured or scoped correctly and timelines blew out. Building a hospital is complex. You need to work together, because it takes all types.

The point is, pride can cause leaders not to take advice from others. If you are caught up in the hierarchy and see those around you as “lower” than you, you can’t collaborate effectively. Great leadership involves sometimes putting your pride on the line and taking advice.

But, here’s a secret for you. You’re not meant to know everything. You can ask questions and can ask for help. No matter how senior a leader you might be.

Confidence is the food of the wise man, and the liquor of the fool.

There you have it. Four enemies of great leadership all in one handy page. I guess it could have been more concise, but I still encourage you to print it out and stick it on your workplace wall.

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