Leadership Mistakes

The Number One Failing of Really Useless Leaders

Steven Sonsino asked:

Now I’m sure you’ve read Stephen Covey’s excellent book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. But if you haven’t, you should. It’s an inspiring summary of the seven simple but motivational things you need to do to be an inspirational leader. And it can help you to build an inspirational leadership style.

I mention Covey’s book because my recent research tackles the other end of the scale.

I’ve been looking at ‘The Seven Failings of Really Useless Leaders’. You’re probably asking how a study of the failings of really useless leaders can help you: it’s just another angle on leadership, right? Well, I’m sorry, but you’d be wrong if you thought that.

Because unlike other leadership research, this does NOT concentrate on good or great leadership. Or even on getting from good to great. You don’t need to copy all those inspirational leaders out there, because copying other people blindly just doesn’t work.

And there’s a better reason why you shouldn’t concentrate on these brilliant role models. You see, we learn much more from our mistakes than from the things we do well.

Some years ago it occurred to me that to become better leaders we should NOT look at a handful of inspirational leaders – such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. Don’t get me wrong – these folks ARE inspiring. It’s just that I believe we can learn far more, and far more quickly, from assessing the damage done by poor or appalling leaders.

I’m lucky. In my job as a business school professor I get to work with the best of the best. But I also hear about, and see, many things that don’t work so well in firms: things that destroy value.

Now don’t misunderstand me – I can’t reveal the specific inside information from my coaching, teaching and consulting work – that would be unethical. But I can summarize for you the seven key things that seem to occur time and time again – things people do that have a direct impact on the bottom line. I CAN tell you about those.

To some people, the Seven Failings of Really Useless Leaders may be blindingly obvious. But, believe me, my research shows me that there are THOUSANDS of managers every day who continue to DEMOTIVATE their colleagues and subordinates, destroying bottom-line value. They are uninspiring, to say the least.

So here is the first of the Seven Failings of Really Useless Leaders: Really Useless Leaders kill enthusiasm.

I have discovered that uninspiring managers actively shut down the enthusiasm of their staff. Most people are naturally enthusiastic about their jobs: after all, it’s what their training and experience have prepared them for. But we kill that natural enthusiasm by interfering far too much in the nitty-gritty of their day-to-day workload. ‘Don’t do it like that,’ I hear people say. ‘Do it like this.’

Why do we do this? The best leaders find the best people, train the heck out of them and let them get on with their jobs. Uninspiring managers hire good people and then tell them exactly how to do their job.

So why do we interfere too much? I believe what we’re most worried about is only a question of style, how we think the work should get done. But, frankly, as long as the objectives are met – and met well – then who cares how?

Of course, in some roles – in the service industries – the style, the ‘how’ of the task, is all that matters. But that doesn’t mean that every little task needs to be micro-managed by us as leaders of the business.

Frankly, we have got to stop micro-management in its tracks if we want to boost the performance of our people. You buy 51% of your people’s effort through their pay packet. But if you want that other 49% of effort, you’re going to have to earn it.

Motivation and truly effective delegation are the answers. You’ve got to know your people and you’ve got to know how to motivate people. Let’s take these one point at a time:

1. Know your people. One great idea is to issue a short questionnaire to your new recruits – ask them these simple questions: how do you like to be managed? And how can I get the best from you? You give it to them during induction or the early days of their work with you and they complete it. You can then discuss the issues they raise and talk about your leadership style.

Why not use this with all your team? Issue the survey to your immediate direct reports and get them all to complete it.

The upshot is you’ve got to know how your people are motivated – ‘what do you need from me to get the best out of you?’ You’ll probably be surprised by the answers you get.

2. Excite your people. If Really Useless Leaders kill enthusiasm, inspirational leaders must excite and enthuse their people. We know that enthusiastic workers, happy workers, are productive workers.

You must build a workplace where the climate is one where people are willing and able to invest their best effort. You have to set the scene, you have to lead the way. Because leadership is exciting other people to higher levels of performance.

If it’s your job to deliver performance through others, then it’s your job to create the enthusiasm. The key point to ask yourself is: do people know me as someone who can create enthusiasm in the workplace?

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