Two Leadership Traps: How To Get Out Of Them. How To Avoid Them

Most people fail in their careers because of leadership deficiencies.  A key reason for their failure is they continually and unknowingly keep falling into two leadership traps.  The author describes the traps and how to deal with them.

By Brent Filson - 2005

You’ve heard of the Peter Principle: “People are promoted to their level of ultimate incompetence”.  But what the Peter Principle doesn’t tell you is the nature of the incompetence.  For the most part, it’s leadership incompetence. 

A human resources director told me, “Brent, we hire people for their skills and knowledge, but we fire them or fail to promote them or promote them for their leadership abilities -- or lack thereof.”

In other words, throughout their careers, people are promoted to take charge of bigger and bigger groups -- until they take over a group that’s too big for their leadership abilities. 

One main reason they come up short in abilities is they are constantly and unconsciously falling into two leadership traps. 

I’ll describe the traps, how to get out of them, and how not to get into them in the first place.

The traps can be particularly deadly because they are in many cases self-set -- and even self-triggered.  What’s worse: the vast majority of leaders who get into them don’t have a clue they’re caught.  It’s one thing to be in a trap and know you’re in it: You try to get out.  But it’s a problem of another magnitude to be in a trap and not know you’re in it.  In that case, you’ll stay there. 

THE FIRST TRAP: “I need ...” 

A marketing leader in a major global company was stumbling.  His team was failing to achieve the targeted results.  He told me, “The good news is they do what I tell them.  The bad news is they do what I tell them -- ONLY what I tell them.  Other than firing the worst of the bunch or transferring others out of the team, I can’t figure out what to do.  And if I don’t do it soon, I’ll be the one fired or transferred!”

I asked if I could sit in on a team meeting to scope out the situation.  “Be my guest,” he said.  “But I don’t see what good it’ll do.  The problem isn’t in the meetings.  Everybody agrees what needs to get done when they’re in the meetings.  The problem is the results after the meetings.”

The meeting had been going only for only a couple of minutes when I saw what was wrong.  Afterwards, alone in his office, I told him: “They’re not the problem.  YOU’RE the problem.  You’ve fallen into two leadership traps.”

He looked at me incredulously.  “What traps?”

I explained that leaders often fall into traps that prevent them from getting the full measure of results they’re capable of.  And the deadliest traps are often the ones of their own making.

The first trap is the  “I need . . . “ trap.

Leaders fall into this trap when they say, “I need you to hit the marketing targets, I need you to get more productive, I need you to (fill in the blank)”.   I NEED ... I NEED ... I NEED ....

Why is this a trap?  The answer: the Leader’s Fallacy.  The Leader’s Fallacy is the mistaken belief by leaders that their own needs are automatically reciprocated by the needs of the people they lead.  It’s a fallacy because automatic reciprocity doesn’t exist.  But so many leaders go blithely along driven by the Fallacy and so fall into the “I need . . . “ trap.

For instance, the marketing leader thought he was motivating people to get great results.  However, during the meeting, he was constantly repeating, “I need ... ”.  So, in reality, he was ordering people to get average results.  Of course, leaders don’t order people to get average results.  But average results are usually the outcome of order leadership. 

The order is the lowest form of motivation.  The order leader’s focus of my-way-or-the-highway can’t get great results from people on a consistent basis simply because people usually can’t be ordered to undertake extraordinary endeavors.  They must choose to do so.  When he said, “The bad news is they ONLY do what I tell them.”, he was unknowingly afflicting them. They were simply responding to an order then going into a kind of suspended animation (masked by busy work) until the next order came along.

Here’s how to get out of, or avoid, the “I need ... “ trap. It simply involves changing what you think and what you say in very simple ways.

In my working with leaders worldwide for more than two decades, I’ve noticed a character trait that the most successful share: They focus consistently on understanding and supporting the people whom they lead. 

For instance, you could say, “You need ...” which is a good way out.   
Or, you could say, “The team needs ... “ which is a better way out.

Or, you could say, “Do you need? ...”  Which is the best way out, especially with a question mark attached.  A corollary to this question is, “What do you need from me to help you get the team to succeed?”

Asking a question rather than using a declarative is often more effective because it gets people reflecting upon their situation.  After all, we can’t motivate anyone to do anything.  They have to motivate themselves.  And they best motivate themselves when they reflect on their character and their situation. 

A question can trigger such reflection and ultimately lead to their making the choice to be motivated to be your cause leader. You may not like the answer; but often their answer, no matter what it is, can better lead to more results being achieved than your declaration can.

Furthermore, asking questions like, “What do you need for the team to succeed? ...” works much better than saying “I need ... “ because you are forging a “critical confluence” – the confluence of your or your organization’s needs with their needs.

You may think I’m putting too fine a point on these changes; and to a degree, you’d be right.  Making simply one change may not be important; but when you multiple the changes many times during the day, day in and day out, month in and month out, their aggregate can add up to tremendous change indeed.  In fact, it can add up to job and career transformation.  

So, the next time you are tempted to say, “I need ... “, don’t.   Instead, say, “Do you need?  ...” or “What do you need? ... ” Over time, you’ll forge great changes in how people relate to you and your leadership, changes that will lead to substantial increases in results.

However, watch out: In getting out of the “I need ...” trap, you may find yourself in another trap.  Asking “What do you need? ...” might play right into their hands of people who don’t’ trust you or want to sabotage your leadership or use you to further their own ends.  Such people want to lead you down their private rabbit hole.  They want to get you exploring things that have nothing to do with your getting the results you need and everything to do with satisfying the needs of their ego or whatever agenda they have.  “Don’t you think you need? ... “ could be their ticket t


2005© The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. – Celebrating 25 years of helping leaders of top companies worldwide achieve outstanding results every day. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get his FREE report "7 Steps To Leadership Mastery"