When it comes to studying leadership, the natural tendency is to focus on those leaders whose successes and achievements continue to inspire us and drive so many to emulate them in the hopes of replicating their accomplishments.
Of course, as much as it’s important for us to see what we can learn from those who understand what it takes to succeed at leadership, it’s also valuable for us to examine and consider what causes others to fail in the role of leading people towards a common goal or shared purpose.
To that end, I’d like to share the story of one leader whose example I hope will help us to appreciate one of the key challenges leaders need to address if they are to succeed in this role in today’s fast-changing, global environment.
When Albert* was promoted to head the division he had spent the past few years working for, he naturally jumped into the opportunity with a lot of enthusiasm and ideas of how he’d like the department to operate under his leadership.
Given how Albert was career-driven and had his eyes on playing a bigger role in the organization, he was determined to not only prove his ability to lead this department, but to get his former colleagues to view him as ‘executive material’, in order to support his efforts to move up in the organization.
In no time, Albert was sending out memos detailing new approaches he wanted his former colleagues to employ in order to ‘make things more efficient’ or to ‘make efforts more aligned with corporate policy’ as a way to prove his technical prowess.
He used team meetings to inform his direct reports of his interactions with various groups of executives and VPs to highlight his growing familiarity with those at the executive level in order to prove his comfort level with ‘playing in the big leagues’.
Of course, in his zeal to prove his ability to lead and step up into the executive circle, Albert ended up making a number of missteps which, though seemingly minor, spoke more about the nature of his leadership than those actions he often tried to put in the limelight.
For example, Albert became so focused on building his ‘rising star’ status that when one of his team members expressed concern about the growing number of delays in getting vital data from him to complete their work, he dismissed their concerns because it wasn’t a ‘high visibility’ issue that those in senior management would care about.
He also challenged data findings his team members presented at department meetings – results the senior VPs had already signed off on – as a way to publicly demonstrate that he wasn’t letting anything get overlooked on his watch.
Unfortunately for Albert, he didn’t understand that in his quest to demonstrate his authority in leading this department, he was also showing his team how little he trusted their ability to understand what matters, not to mention their ability to do things right.
In light of these and several other missteps, it’s not surprising that Albert lasted a little over a year in this leadership role, leaving behind a team that was now suffering from decreased productivity levels, a recent history of missed deadlines and mistakes, and crumbling lines of communication between the various team members.
When these moments of leadership failure happen, it’s natural for us to look for some lightening rod moment – some specific event that clearly denotes that critical moment when things began to fall apart. Just as with those who succeed at leadership, when people in leadership roles fail, we want to unravel the specific steps they took to let us know what we need to avoid to prevent a similar fate.
Unfortunately, the reality is that leadership failures are rarely defined by a singular event, like that infamous moment when former BP CEO Tony Hayward expressed his frustration over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by blurting out “I’d like my life back”.
And yet, while these two leaders may differ in having that sense of clarity for when their ability to lead fell apart, Hayward’s words and Albert’s actions do share something in common. In both cases, they demonstrated what really mattered the most to them in terms of how they approached their responsibilities and obligations to those under their care.
In Albert’s case, he was so focused on proving how valuable his leadership could be to the organization that he failed to show his team the value he was helping them to achieve as their leader.
It became very clear to everyone in Albert’s department that he viewed leadership as something one achieves because of your title or position. That he expected people to throw their full support behind him simply because of the sign that adorned his office door.
What he failed to understand, though, is that leadership is not dependent on your title, but on your ability to inspire people to follow you. [Share on Twitter] That people believe in your ability to chart a course and guide them to create something of value; something that matters not just to those in charge, but to all involved.
It’s important to note, too, that Albert’s time in this leadership role was short-lived not because he made drastic mistakes like Hayward did. Rather, it was because his actions and behaviour had revealed that his focus was not on how he could bring out the best in those under his care, but on how he could make his own star shine brighter within the organization.
Albert’s story is an important reminder for all of us that if we allow ourselves to get caught up in the busyness of today’s noisy world – or like in Albert’s case, to focus mostly on ourselves and what we personally want to achieve – we can very quickly find ourselves losing touch with how to engage and empower those we’ve accepted the responsibility to guide and to help to succeed in their collective efforts.
As much as we might like to assume that there’s an event we can point to and say that’s when things flew off the rails, more often than not, people fail at leadership in those small, everyday moments. In those moments where they fail to demonstrate to those they lead that they matter; that their contributions and efforts are valuable and important, and that we care about their successes.
To put it simply, leadership is not found in grand gestures, but in those moments where we reveal what we care about. [Share on Twitter]
And that’s why I wanted to share Albert’s story because leadership is about those little moments, those conversations where we have the opportunity to build relationships with those under our care. To learn and better understand what matters to them, what excites them and makes them feel like they’re making a difference, and then connecting that to the shared purpose that defines our organization.
We need to approach leadership as an opportunity to not simply better ourselves, but to help those we lead become better as well. [Share on Twitter]
Sure, there are many examples of leaders who fall under the weight of their own hubris, caught up in the narrative of their own leadership that they soon forgot their raison d’être – the reason why people rally behind them and willingly follow their lead going forward.
But as with those leadership luminaries we look up to, these fallen-from-grace leaders also have lessons to teach us about what causes people to fail and end up on the other side of that leadership spectrum.
And perhaps the biggest lesson they can teach us all is why we need to be mindful for how we show up in our role as a leader. That we never forget that leadership is not about you – it’s about those who step forward to follow your lead. [Share on Twitter]