Two Leadership Traps

All leaders occasionally get into these traps.  Here is how to recognize if you are in a trap, and, if you are, how to get out.  

By Brent Filson - 8/2008

You know the Peter Principle says: "In a hierarchy, everyone tends to rise to the level of their incompetence."

But what the Peter Principle doesn’t tell you is the nature of the incompetence. I submit that most often it has to do with leadership.

A Chief Learning Officer 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."

Look at it this way: Throughout people’s careers, they are promoted to take charge of increasingly larger and more complicated groups -- until they take over a group that’s too large and too complicated for their leadership abilities.

Leadership is the pivot point for your job success and career advancement.

Clearly, when you lead well, you’ll go a long way; lead badly, and you’ll stumble.

The trouble is when it comes to leading well, many leaders are their own worst enemies. One reason for this is that they constantly get caught in two leadership traps.

Knowing these traps – how not to get in them; and how, if you are in them, how to get out –- can boost the effectiveness of your daily leadership activities.

The traps can be particularly deadly because they are in many cases self-set and 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 trouble of a higher order of 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 learning 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 these learning 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 of 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. Reciprocity must be earned. But so many leaders go blithely along driven by the Fallacy and so fall into the "I need . . . " trap.

For instance, the learning 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.http://www.actionleadership.com/ezine/v1n5.html

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’re 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? ... " or "Tell me what 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.

These 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 to ride. Before you ask the question, be aware of the ride and how to get off. 

THE SECOND TRAP: "You

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Leadership is too important for the advancement of your client’s job performances and careers and also for the success of your company to have leadership development simply fulfill training objectives. For the past 22+ years, I’ve been helping leaders of all ranks and functions worldwide get great business results.

"Brent Filson knows how to help others get results! His programs are proven in a variety of settings including industry, government, non-profit and the military proving that the way he practices and coaches leadership can work for any organization willing to invest the time and energy necessary to influence their people to produce at their highest productivity levels.”
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I can also help you help your leaders develop and execute unique, customized, total-solution systems for every function of your business. http://www.actionleadership.com/Leadership_Training.cfm

“One of the key components of Brent’s methodologies is their tremendous value in driving monumental change through the leadership of others in the matrix supporting your cause. The actions of developing cause leaders has allowed ordinary teams in my organization to achieve extraordinary results.”
—Robert Cancalosi, Global General Manager, General Electric Medical

Lots Of Help On My Web Site:

On my web site, http://www.actionleadership.com you’ll find many of my books, articles, interviews, course descriptions, and instruction methodologies that will help you in many ways boost your job performance and advance your career by helping your clients get the right results in the right ways.

Best wishes,

Brent Filson
Brent Filson
413-458-4403
http://www.actionleadership.com