How to Avoid Leadership Derailment

How to Avoid Leadership Derailment
Despite all the MBA programs, books, and seminars, research shows that 50 percent to 60 percent of managers fail (Photograph by Philip Gatward/Getty Images)
Photograph by Philip Gatward/Getty Images

So much research and so many books have been written on supervision, management, and leadership, and yet research shows that 50 percent to 60 percent of managers fail. Every university has programs devoted to training leaders. Seminars are available everywhere, every day, and still one out of two (or more) will not deliver on expectations. Some fail quietly, but many fail spectacularly, their acts painfully obvious to all. Spitzer, Petreaus, Weiner, Armstrong, Congress, Lay, Skilling—the list goes on and on. It happens less spectacularly on a daily basis in businesses, public agencies, hospitals, schools, and governments that touch each of us every day. It causes stress and heartbreak, worry and confusion, and it causes huge losses in profit, customer satisfaction, and employee morale. It goes on and on and on without end.

In our 35 years in the field, we hear amazing stories and see the carnage on a regular basis. We see all of life’s little flaws accentuated. We see that control, abrasiveness, and manipulation are frequent substitutions for rational judgment, open communication, and solid guidance and direction. We also see that lack of self-awareness, self-control, and humanity get translated into punishment, retribution, self-protection, and blind ambition. We can go on, but it’s much more important for all of us to recognize that we have to be better leaders and better people. That it requires lifelong study and practice, and the knowledge that it can be learned.

We know this stuff is not easy. If there were a simple formula, it would not be a problem. We know that training helps. We also know that character matters and that judgment counts. Leadership is dynamic and complex. It always looks much easier from the outside peering in.

Part of the difficulty is that most of the job is not at all mysterious and it’s so easy to say, “There is nothing new here.” But it’s not as simple as “knowing what should be done.” It’s in the doing. Here’s our “how to” for the things the best leaders do:

Communication: Put listening to your team and customers on your agenda. Do employee or customer focus groups. Conduct regular feedback sessions to hear what employees are thinking and saying.

Coaching: Get a personal coach to help you leverage one strength and improve one weakness.

Planning: Check in on the status of your top three strategies this year. Sit in (unannounced) on various management meetings. Gauge the progress of your company plan and the problems. Don’t preach; just pay attention.

Recognition: Ensure that you know the people and teams who are making progress or exceeding goals. Send them notes of congratulations. Create a quarterly award related to achieving key objectives. Show up around the company and recognize employees or managers who have demonstrated exemplary customer service.

The goal in all these is to be accessible, to learn what you don’t know in the corner office, and to engage your teams at their level of performance and problems. After all, true leadership effectiveness is a high-contact sport.

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