Reflections on Leadership: What Not to Do

Effective leadership, like good wine, often comes from surprising places. It shows up to produce a memorable vintage when the right combination of warm days, cool nights, and rain meet with optimum harvesting time. It seems almost haphazard, yet when it emerges, it produces positive memories and, properly consumed, makes one feel warm all over. Regrettably, the wrong combination results in either a sharp, acrid, or watery, tasteless sort of thing that is remembered, but only for the disappointment and discouragement it produced. When would-be leaders miss the mark, they can produce the same kind of experience for their clients, peers, community, and employees.

For a moment, and with respect to the April Fool’s Day publication of this discussion, let’s consider Leadership: What Not To Do.

Treat every moment as a teachable moment

Some leaders cannot resist the chance to demonstrate their wisdom and mastery of every conceivable subject. Somehow, they believe their job is to show the way, and their expertise, in every matter. Such hubris, likely bred by insecurity, stifles creativity and diminishes individuals. Such men and women rarely grow other leaders, unless it is to produce their own “star” pupil at whom they can point and say “See. Look what I did.” Like a parent whose child receives a “91” on a math exam, they seem to always be asking, “why not better?” breeding insecurity and frustration in the child. Effective leaders don’t treat every moment as a “teachable” moment.

Fail to acknowledge legitimate critiques

Leaders who fail to listen to the honest and legitimate critiques or their company, personal performance, or effectiveness will soon find themselves like the Emperor with No Clothes. He will wander “naked” into the fray of a challenge, project, or opportunity exposed to unknown risks. Acknowledging honest critiques of process, organizational, or performance shortcomings is not a weakness. Nor is it a sign of disloyalty. Like listening to the results from an annual physical, it allows for corrections that can improve organizational health and performance. If you would lead, learn to listen, acknowledge, and reward constructive candor.

Forget to say please and thank you regularly

Common human kindness and decency are often forgotten in today’s business climate. With high unemployment and the wearisome demands of industry and commerce, it is easy for leaders to take the attitude “Where else can they go to work?” and forget their team members lives are filled with as much uncertainty and stress as their own. Their team members, generally, want to do a good job. They do not need to be thanked for every little thing they do. Nor do they expect a syrupy sweet “please” at every turn. Yet in this day of limited compensation growth and upward mobility, a phone call, and email, or dropping by to say “thank you” and “good job” are powerful motivators. When leaders elaborate on specific performance, rather than just a general reflection, team members find themselves buoyed to continue the battle. Effective leaders make the effort to say please and thank you and in doing so create relationship capital with their teams.

Accept poor performance

Most members of your team know when they are falling short of a goal. The leader’s job is fairly simple. Not easy mind you, but simple. He or she must get the team member to do more or less of something or do it better or differently. The leader’s job is to diagnose the shortcoming properly, treating the cause, not the symptom. He or she must have the courage to challenge the team member to reach the goal without adding to the discouragement probably already present in the individual. Failing to act the says neither the goal, nor the person, really matters. It tells other team members that are achieving the goal their efforts really do not matter so much either. In the end, if coaching, challenging, cajoling, and disciplinary efforts don’t work, leaders must have the courage to part ways with the team member incapable of meeting the goal. Demonstrating that courage builds clarity of purpose in your team.

Take yourself too seriously

The puffed up leader unable to laugh at his own shortcomings or with others on his team is a miserable soul. He is a carrier of despair, and sometimes, “proverbially” heart attacks and ulcers. For his own sake, this leader must learn the difference between taking his responsibilities seriously and taking himself seriously. These leaders brighten a room just be leaving it! In its place, a little talk about the kids, vacation, sports, or other interest with team members keeps the team loose. Anyone who has ever participated in a competitive sport knows the value of staying loose. Effective leaders don’t take themselves too seriously.

On this April Fool’s day, give a little thought to “what not to do.” And, as always, keep the faith!