Huge publicly-traded companies Enron and Worldcom go down in flames under the guidance of capable leaders with highly questionable ethics. Gold medalist Marion Jones, once considered a positive role model, faces criminal charges for doping. The Catholic Church continues to agonize over lapses in leadership that resulted in sexual abuse of children. From the indictment of Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens to the imprisonment of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to the adulterous affair of former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards, politics is rife with leadership failures.
In the recent past, we’ve witnessed the public downfall of leaders from almost every arena of society €” business, sports, religion and politics. One day they’re on top of the heap, the next, shame and infamy are heaped on them.
We are incensed by the catastrophic failures of these leaders. After all, we cheered for them, voted for them, put stock in their companies, and consulted them for spiritual guidance. We trusted them, they let us down, and it hurts.
While our outrage at disgraced leaders may be justified, we fail to realize how quickly “they” become “us.” The distance between beloved leader and despised failure is shorter than we think. Like anyone, these fallen leaders never set out to sacrifice their integrity, abandon ethical behavior, or exploit those they led. But it happened anyway. Their failures should be our cautions.
Ken Maupin, a practicing psychotherapist and colleague, has built his practice on working with high-performance personalities, including leaders in business, religion, and sports. Ken and I have often discussed why leaders fail. Our discussions have led to the following “warning signs” of impending failure.
Warning Sign #1: A Shift in Focus
This shift can occur several ways. Oftentimes, leaders simply lose sight of what’s important. The laser-like focus that catapulted them to the top begins to wander, and they are seduced by the trappings of leadership, such as wealth and notoriety.
Leaders are usually distinguished by their ability to “think big.” But as their focus shifts, their thinking shrinks. They micromanage, get caught up in minutiae, and consume themselves with trivial decisions better left to others. To make matters worse, this tendency can be exacerbated by an unceasing quest for perfection.
A more subtle leadership derailer is an obsession with “doing” rather than “becoming.” A leader’s greatest influence flows naturally from inner vision and character. It is possible for a leader to become infatuated with action, and, in the process, lose touch with the all-important development of self. However, busier isn’t always better.
At the present moment, what is your primary focus? If you can’t write it on the back of your business card, then your leadership suffers from a lack of clarity. Take the requisite time to center your focus on what’s most important.
Would you describe your thinking as expansive or contractive? You should be willing to roll up your sleeves to do whatever it takes to get the job done. However, don’t take the reins from others on tasks they can do as competently as you can. Always strive to think on a higher plane. In doing so, you’ll make the transition from doer to developer.
Warning Sign #2: Poor Communication
Lack of focus disorients a leader and sets the stage for poor communication. Followers can’t possibly understand a leader’s intent when the leader isn’t even sure what it is! When leaders are unclear about purpose, they cloak their confusion with uncertainty and ambiguous communication.
Sometimes, leaders fall into the clairvoyance trap. They delude themselves into believing that committed followers can sense their goals and carry out their wishes without being told. When misunderstandings arise, managers blame their people for lack of effort (or commitment) rather than recognizing their own communication negligence.
“Say what you mean, and mean what you say” is timeless advice, but it must be preceded by knowing what you mean! Clarity of purpose is the starting point for all effective communication. The hard work of communication only pays dividends when you’re crystal clear about your message.
Warning Sign #3: Risk Aversion
Leaders on the verge of breakdown fear failure rather than desiring success. Past victories create pressure for leaders: “Will I be able to sustain outstanding performance?” “What will I do for an encore?” In fact, the longer a leader is successful, the higher his or her perceived cost of failure will be.
When driven by the fear of failure, leaders are unable to take reasonable risks. They limit themselves to tried and proven pathways. Attempts at innovation €” key to their initial success €” diminish and eventually disappear.
Which is more important to you: the journey or the destination? Are you still taking reasonable risks? Prudent leadership avoids reckless risk, but neither is it paralyzed by fear. On many occasions, the dance of leadership is two steps forward, one step back.
Warning Sign #4: Ethics Slip
A leader’s credibility depends upon two qualities: what he or she does (competency) and who he or she is (character). Deficiencies in either quality create an integrity problem.
The highest principle of leadership is integrity. When ethical compromise is rationalized as necessary for the “greater good,” a leader sets foot on the slippery slope of failure.
All too often, leaders see their followers as pawns €” mere means to an end. As a result, they confuse manipulation with leadership. Such leaders rapidly lose respect. To save face, they cease to be people “perceivers” and become people “pleasers,” using popularity to ease the guilt of lapsed integrity.
As a leader, it’s imperative to constantly subject your life and work to the highest scrutiny. Are there areas of conflict between what you believe and how you behave? Has compromise crept into your operational tool kit?
Warning Sign #5: Poor Self-Management
Tragically, if a leader doesn’t take care of himself or herself, no one else will. Unless a leader is blessed with unusually perceptive followers, nobody will pick up on signs of fatigue and stress. Leaders are counted on to produce, but they aren’t superheroes running on limitless energy.
While leadership is invigorating, it is also tiring. Like anyone else, leaders are susceptible to feeling drained, depressed, and de-motivated. Those who neglect their physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual needs are headed for disaster. Think of having a gauge for each of these four areas of your life, and check them often! If a gauge’s needle dips toward “empty,” make time for refreshment and replenishment. Clear your schedule and take care of yourself. Self-preservation isn’t selfish it’s vital to the health of those you lead.
Warning Sign #6: Lost Love
Leaders face impending disaster when they abandon their first love. The hard work of leadership should be fulfilling and fun. However, when divorced from their dreams, leaders may find the responsibility of leadership to be frustrating and fruitless. To stay motivated, leaders must stick to what they love and rediscover what compelled them to accept the mantle of leadership in the first place.
To make sure that you stay on the track of following your first love, frequently ask yourself these three questions: Why did I initially pursue leadership? Have those reasons changed? Do I still want to lead?
Heed the Signs
The warning signs in life €” from stoplights to prescription labels €” are intended for our good. They protect us from disaster, and we would be foolish to ignore them. As you consider the six warning signs of leadership failure, don’t be afraid to take an honest look at yourself. If any of the warnings ring true, take action today! By paying attention to these signs and heeding their warnings, you can avoid disaster and sustain the kind of leadership that is healthy and fulfilling both for yourself and your followers.
About the Author
Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio for leadership development and remarkable performance. He is an award-winning speaker and the author of two recent bestselling books, The Fred Factor: How Passion In Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary and You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader: How Anyone Anywhere Can Make a Positive Difference are bestsellers. His book The Encore Effect: How to Give a Remarkable Performance in Anything You Do will be released September 2008. To obtain additional information for growing yourself, your people and your business (including free articles), visit www.marksanborn.com, www.fredfactor.com and www.youdontneedatitle.com. For information about having Mark speak for your group, call 303.683.0714.