Why some leaders fail:Judging character badly, not listening and failing to form collaborations

22 Sep

There is a lot written about leadership today. I am considered a leader by some, I even have a gig coaching women administrators. Perhaps that is because I have gotten some positions that are defined as leading–director for example. But to me leading is more than just a title or  being in charge of something, it is having a vision, a perspective, a goal  and being able to convince a critical mass of others to share it and work towards it with you.

I remember about ten years ago a new minister came to a church in my hometown of Xenia, Ohio. He fancied himself a leader and constantly told anyone to listen how he was ready to lead. What he did not seem to understand is you cannot declare yourself a leader. You have to have qualities that make people want to follow you. His constant cry of ” I am ready to lead, I just need some followers” was ludicrous. The fact he did not see the absurdity of what he was saying was pitiful. Of course, he, like many people who have come to Xenia from somewhere else, thought that Xenia was full of backward country people who needed to be shown the path, the way, the light. What he did not realize is that people in Xenia on average are very well informed. If they do not follow you it is not because your message is above their heads, it is because they do not think you are worthy of their allegiance and efforts.

Leading means lots of things. The first thing it means is listening to other people and processing what they are saying, either about you or about issues , then synthesizing your own view and goals. You do not have to lead by committee, but you also need to constantly check yourself to make certain you are being logical and rational. All of us tend to have blind spots, it is wise to acknowledge them and manage them. Nobody knows everything.

Having said that, being able to make a decision and see it through to the end is also a necessary skill for leaders. There are always going to be people who do not agree with your vision or your plans. Some of them are simply chronic naysayers. We used to have a woman on campus who did not agree with anything anyone wanted to do. She did not have an alternate plan, she just did not want to agree with anything that was not her own idea. The problem was she did not have any ideas.

The number one thing I have seen, however, that makes leaders fail is trusting the wrong people, having faith in other people without checking them out thoroughly and not setting benchmarks and holding people to them. It is nice to be liked, but as Machiavelli said it is better to be feared. Leaders can only have so many people like them. This, of course, sometimes leads to the problem of misguided loyalty. I am fascinated by leaders who do not understand that people are going to suck up to you if they think you are powerful. Because they suck up to you and want to be “friends”, does not mean they are trustworthy, decent, ethical or honest.

A prime example happened in my circle recently, a leader who is himself kind, ethical and honest trusted people who were none of the above because he liked them and thought they liked him. My own personal belief is that if you really liked me you would not do something that would end up tarnishing my reputation. We are, after all, known by the company we keep. Fiscal malfeasance, using racial slurs to students, things like that are not the actions of decent people, and not things any leader should want to be associated with.

I understand the need to trust some people no matter what kind of leadership position you are in, nobody wants to totally go it alone with no intimates, no friends, but, be careful who you choose to listen to and believe. There is an old Jewish proverb ( one of my Jewish friends told me that it was anyway) that says ,”If nine people tell you that you have a tail laugh, if ten people tell you, you had better look.” In the case of the leader who was too trusting many people had told him his “friends” were not good people, that they were different with people they did not think were powerful and were not to be trusted. I am sure his “friends” had all kinds of reasons  to explain why people did not trust or like  or respect them. “They are jealous of me, they are trying to discredit me so they can take my place in your inner circle, they are just trouble makers”, but if a certain number of people warn you about someone it is a very good idea to distance yourself.

I once had a good friend when I was a high school teacher who had great difficulty controlling her sex life. She was married, but dallied, first with a student (!), then with a principal. She had been a homely teenager and turned into a much better looking woman. Because of her lingering  self-esteem issues she was a sucker for any man who told her she was pretty. I tried talking to her, explaining what she was doing to her reputation, but she did not seem to be able to understand that small towns are not forgiving of such transgressions.

Although she was able to keep her job ( she was friends with the superintendent) , I had to let her go as a friend. She accused me of being judgmental ( I admit that I did castigate her for having sex with a student), but I told her I did not care if she had alliances with men but she needed to a) get a divorce, and b) confine her paramours to grown men! We could not be friends anymore because she was out of control and I knew sooner or later her relationship debris would end up hitting me.

If I were to be  asked to give advice to leaders it would be the same advice I gave my own children. Do not hang out with people who are not in control of their lives. People who do not have control of their lives will make it so that you do not have control of yours in short order.

I cannot think of anything worse than being brought down by something that I did not do myself. I can get myself into quite enough messes on my own thank you, I do not need any help. So leaders the moral of this story is this:

1) Listen to people, lots of people, gather your data from as wide a stream as possible

2) Hold your intimates to high standards and jettison them if they cannot meet the standard

3) Do not allow anyone to abuse your trust to the point where it reflects badly on you

4) Do your homework before you make a decision and then hold to that decision even in the face of oppostion

5) Understand the higher you go the better target you are for both duplicity ( I love you! Of course I have always admired you! You are so wonderful!) and sabotage ( He is not all that, you should know what I know about him!)

6) Remember who you are, what you believe in and what you are trying to accomplish and get rid of anyone or anything that does not support it. 

7)Be nice to people you have to be nice to, but do not be a sucker.

8) Be fair, be honest, be transparent ( as much as possible) and be humble

9) Do not be afraid to be mean if it is warranted ( Okay you can call it decisive if you have a problem with mean)

10) Beware the suck-up for he shall stab you in the back at the first sign of trouble.

In short, be the kind of person people would like to follow, even if their jobs or salaries did not depend on it.



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Posted by on September 22, 2012 in Uncategorized


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