Monday, May 31, 2010

To the Graduates of 2010: Failed Leadership

I apologize to you graduates. We have not done a very good job of providing you with good role-models. Perhaps the silver lining in all the failed leadership is the lessons to be learned. As a student of leadership, I’ve come to the conclusion that failed leadership can be attributed to five behaviors: lack of courage, lack of humility, taking oneself too seriously, unwillingness to learn and broken promises.

Lack of Courage

Leadership begins with courage and the willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone. Courage is about standing for something and stepping out to lead when the situation arises. The absence of courage can be traced back to the unexamined life. If the leader is not principled, not clear on his or her values, not sure of his or her purpose, and not focused on the mission, then there is no courage to move out of their comfort zone. Lacking this critical foundation, the courage-less leader may stand for anything and has a hard time saying “no.” What is missing is backbone. What is evident in the place of backbone is self-doubt. The courage-less leader’s behavior is full of excuses or avoidance. At the root of this behavior is fear—the fear of failure, the fear of not being accepted, the fear of being unloved. Followers of this leader lose hope in the future.

Another courage-less behavior is the inability to say, “I was wrong.” Courage is a blend of strength and compassion, muscle and heart. If the leader knows what he or she stands for (as well as for what he or she does not stand for), they recognize wrong and seek to correct it and heal the wound. To avoid admitting wrongs, erodes the trust of followers.

Lack of Humility

Jim Collins, author of the best selling book Good to Great, writes that humility is a common behavior of fifth level leadership, the highest form of leadership found in the leaders of great organizations. When you look at fallen business leaders, fallen political leaders, fallen church leaders, fallen entertainment leaders and fallen sports leaders, they were all a quart low on humility. They lacked the ability to walk-the-talk and see themselves as a part of community or a part of a team. In many cases, they see themselves as better than others on the team. Leaders without humility are selfish and arrogant. They tend to demonstrate hubris. When success comes, they take the credit. When failure comes, finger pointing is a natural response. The recent senate hearings on the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrate finger-pointing at its worst.

At the root of this poor behavior is a lack of spirituality. There is a proverb, “You can count the seeds in the apple, but only God can count the trees in the seed.” A leader without humility either believes he or she can count the trees in the seed or dismisses the truth as irrelevant. They also lack a sense of wonder or appreciation for the unseen, the sacred or the unexamined.

Take Themselves Too Seriously

The leader who takes himself or herself too seriously lacks a sense of humor and always has the need to be right. While they do not see themselves as lonely, their behavior tends to isolate them from others. If you have a discussion or an argument with the too-serious leader, he or she will always have the last word. While he or she may seem to win arguments, they lose followers as well as friends. The too-serious leader demonstrates insecurity, workaholism and micromanagement. They lead an unbalanced life. The idea of creating a ‘fun-workplace’ is seen as an oxymoron.

Unwilling to Learn

“What’s dangerous about the world today is not belief in God or unbelief, but ruthless certainty.” Lisa Miller, author of In Search of Heaven.

In the May 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, is portrayed as a different kind of military leader. His approach to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has focused on “cultural awareness, people-friendly tactics and a broader range of tools. Petraeus believes the pre-9/11 soldier has been taught what to think. He wants the post-9/11 soldier taught how to think.” Consider the differences and ramifications of what versus how. “What” is rote, unchallenged, static, controlled, by-the-book and rigid. “How” is about possibilities and critical thinking, which is dynamic, flexible and freeing.

Here is the lesson all leaders need to not only learn, but embrace. Dr E. Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University, says education is no longer K-12 or K-college, but K-life. Gee says we need to embrace the greatest tradition in human existence—change. Learning is at the heart of change. To be unwilling to learn and to let an ideology, a party, a belief-system, or a tradition speak for you is wall-building rather than bridge-building for one’s growth. You not only hurt yourself, you hurt the community and create a toxic culture.

The signs of a toxic culture include poor morale, continuous conflict, sarcasm and cynicism, divisions and silos, triangulation and a lack of civility. The leader who fails to continuously check the nature of the work culture and seek to maximize its ability to nurture a learning environment, will end up leading no one.

Unkept Promises

The great desire of every human being is to be accepted, to belong, to be thought well of and to be of value. In the need to be accepted, avoid conflict and keep people happy, leaders make promises they cannot keep. Consider the promise of 1988 presidential candidate George H. Bush, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” When a promise can’t be delivered, trust is lost, integrity is tarnished and character is suspect.

The leader needs to think clearly, push his or her ‘pause button’ and carefully think about what can and cannot be promised. A promise is a choice. Choose wisely. At the heart of making a promise is need for truth and careful consideration begun by a “what if...”

In Rushworth Kidder’s thought provoking 1995 book, How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living, Kidder writes that the tough decision should be challenged by trust versus loyalty, individual versus community, short term versus long term and justice versus mercy. Consider Kidder’s process not only for making tough decisions but especially concerning promises.


The solution to preventing or overcoming failed leadership is love!

“The secret to success is to stay in love. Staying in love gives you the fire to ignite other people, to see inside other people, to have a greater desire to get things done. A person who is not in love doesn’t really feel the kind of excitement that helps them get ahead and lead others. I don’t know any other fire, any other thing in life that is more exhilarating and is more positive a feeling than love is” U.S. Army General John H. Stanford, The Leadership Challenge, Third Edition page 399.

So begin by loving yourself just as you are. We are all a work in progress, never to be complete! When you can love yourself just as you are, others find you a pleasure to be around and follow when you lead.

What is cherished by followers: excellence, respect, joy, innovation, integrity, teamwork and social capital—a sense of connectiveness and belonging.

Leonard Berry and Ken Seltman’s, Management Principles of the Mayo Clinic reveals the secrets of success for this highly respected healthcare organization. What has made the Mayo an incredible, enduring success for the past 140 years boils down to living and being the Golden Rule, which requires humility, respect, compassion and love. Furthermore, the Golden Rule builds trust and eliminates greed. It is the core foundation of good leadership. The Golden Rule is love.

Go live and be the Golden Rule. See how it makes a difference in your life and the people you interact with. See how it might save you from failed leadership.