Five Ways Leaders Shoot Themselves in the Foot

leaders bad decisionSome leaders are legendary because they inflict fatal blows to their own careers.  They demonstrate large ethical lapses or are notoriously impolitic in their emotional outbursts.  Though most leaders aren’t that overtly violent in harming themselves, they may still be causing damage to their own success, often unknowingly and certainly unintentionally.  There are five areas in which it is particularly easy to shoot yourself in the foot as a leader.

  1. Solo vs. accompanied.  We’ve heard so often that leadership is a lonely job that it has come to be accepted as the truth, and many leaders live out their careers trying to make the tough decisions alone.  No matter your noble intentions of not foisting tough stuff on others or not sharing too much bad news, going solo is never as effective as operating from multiple balanced and respected viewpoints.  Leaders who regularly try to lead alone not only get sub-optimal decisions, they also send unintended messages to peers, partners, and employees that their input is unneeded.
  2. Who gets credit. Good leaders usually are smart enough to know they should not take credit for someone else’s work.  But they may not realize how nuanced that can become.  Employees often bristle at the languaging of ‘My team did a great job’, for its insinuation that without my leadership it could not have happened.  Even allowing yourself to share in the credit (“Thank you for the compliment.  We all did it together.”) is less effective than “I hope you’ll thank the people who really deserve the credit.  They did the work.  I just stayed out of their way.”  As a leader, the credit you do deserve and can gracefully accept is for developing others and for removing obstacles from their paths.
  3. How you treat the competition.  As a leader, you face people in the organization and ‘on the street’ who disagree with your approach, your decisions, your direction.  Sometimes their motivations are even intentionally destructive to you and your organization or your team.  It is instinctual to rally against a common enemy, but as soon as you cast a competitor or a naysayer as a villain, you diminish your own leadership.  Leaders help others to see people in three dimensions, to examine motivations and diversity of opinion empathetically.  They encourage working with, rather than against.  And when the competition is intentionally destructive, they model courageous conversations rather than retaliatory strikes.
  4. Who you play to.  Good leaders listen for cues.  But sometimes leaders stop listening to all the cues, or stop looking for them after they think they’ve got things figured out.  Obviously, any leader listens carefully for the cues sent by her boss or her board, but if she plays to those cues withoutlistening for and then also playing to the cues of employees, she loses credibility with employees (“our boss plays up well, but she doesn’t play down well at all”).  And it doesn’t end with employees and bosses.  Leaders need to play in equal measure to many constituencies – peers, business partners, customers/clients, salespeople, union leaders, and the list goes on.  If you’re not actively seeking the interests of each group, you risk leaving them out – and they notice.
  5. Who and what you reward.  No signal makes a faster imprint than the boss’s, or a respected leader’s favor.  But we as leaders often fail to thoughtfully plan for what kinds of character, what kinds of behavior, and what kinds of action we want to foster with our favor.  Something delights us in the moment, and we pronounce it good before we check out how it was done.  Jim got the huge new contract, and you never knew he stole the client from a colleague who had been cultivating the relationship for months.  Elaine got the construction project done on time and within budget, but with inferior materials that could cause liability issues later.  Everyone you favor sees things your way; you never bestow your compliments on people with challenging viewpoints.  Thoughtful leaders take care to think through who and what deserves their kudos, and they look for the right thing done the right way with the right motivation before they offer their endorsements.

Maybe it’s a good time to take a careful look at your feet.  Any little wounds you didn’t notice before?  Make sure they’re not-self-inflicted.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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