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 do ... "
Most leaders miss a great opportunity that presents itself to them daily. Since leadership is all about having people take action that gets results, it’s important to understand the kind of action people should take to get the best results. You can ensure it is the best kind of action by challenging people not simply to do a job but to take leadership of that job. After all, there’s a big difference between people doing and leading; and when you are constantly saying, "You do ... " you are missing out on getting a lot more results.
Stay out of the leadership traps – or get out of them once you realize you are in them – and you’ll find your leadership flourishing in new ways. And the Peter Principle, at least as far as it relates to you, will be pushed far into your future.
2008 © The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Note from Brent Filson: Here are some of the most important activities you engage in as a learning leader:
- being business literate,
- thinking tactically and strategically,
- keeping learning objectives aligned with business goals,
- working cross-functionally throughout the entire organization,
- being an exceptional communicator.
Draw a circle around those activities and that circle is leadership.
I’ve been helping leaders of all ranks and functions in top companies worldwide boost the effectiveness of their leadership and thus identify new opportunities in their jobs and careers.
Please call, and let’s talk about how I can help you and your clients seize those opportunities in comprehensive, systematic ways.
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