The 7 deadly sins of leadership

The 7 deadly sins of leadership



In my work as an executive coach, I often encounter leaders who are strong in most areas, but who have one ‘fatal flaw’ that tends to overshadow their strengths.

Like pungent breath, inappropriate dress or a grating laugh, these leadership flaws can be so off-putting that it is difficult to see beyond them to the actual person.

I agree completely with the idea that coaching should focus on leveraging strengths and not on shoring up weak areas, but I draw the line when those weaknesses overshadow the strengths. In fact, often weaknesses are just excessive use of strengths — the dark side, if you will, of a strength.

Over the years, I have encountered a set of these dark-side weaknesses that nearly always undermine the success of a leader. I call these the seven deadly sins of leadership, and I will identify them clearly so that you can avoid them in your own leadership roles.

1. Faking genuineness

“I just don’t feel I can trust him, because it always seems like he’s trying to be a particular type of leader, rather than just being himself.”

The truth is that most people cannot “fake it until you make it” if that requires them to be someone very different from who they are at the core.

I discuss this “false self” in detail in my 2016 book, The Fraud Factor. Sure, as a leader, you often need to develop competencies — like public speaking, facilitating dialogue in conflicts, or writing clear, powerful emails — that do not come naturally to you. However, it is critical that you engage in these new competencies in your own voice, leveraging your core personality, abilities and beliefs. When you start to believe that you must change fundamentally who you are, you end up in the ditch.

Genuineness is almost impossible to fake, and it’s usually easy for others to see that you are not being authentic.

Antidote: Let down your guard, recognize that you are feeling and acting like a fraud, and reconnect to who you are at the core, so that you can just be yourself. It takes less energy and it’s more effective.

2. Assuming worst intentions

“When the team screws up in some way, she immediately assumes that the person intended to embarrass her in front of the boss.”

Trust is a key factor in the success of any leader. One of the quickest ways to undermine trust on your team is for you to distrust the intentions and motives of others. Holding them at arm’s length until you are sure you can trust them, faking genuineness as we just discussed, or assuming the worst in their intentions almost always leads to a low level of trust on the team. And when team members do not trust you, they are not willing to follow you or readily produce the results you are asking of them.

Antidote: Decide to trust that others’ intentions are positive (they usually are) unless you determine with hard evidence that they are not.

3. Constricting communication

“She seems to have favorites on the team in whom she confides; she listens to them more and solicits their ideas more, so others feel unimportant and left out of the loop.”

On almost every organizational environment survey I’ve seen, communication is rated low. People are very conscious of how openly others communicate to them, and they dislike it if it seems constricted.

If they feel out of the loop, not considered important enough to hear about a change right away or to have their opinion included, they feel slighted. When they believe communication to them is constricted, they, of course, conclude that this is intentional. This further erodes trust.

Antidote: Recognize that communication must be as open and inclusive as possible; make sure you ask yourself the question, “Who else should be informed about this right now?” Err on the side of inclusiveness.

4. Hiding behind the role

“Since I am the leader of the group, I can’t share stories about my family life, put up personal pictures in my office, or show any weakness. If I do, they will run rough-shod over me!”

A bit like the Wizard of Oz, who told Dorothy and her friends to ignore the man behind the curtain, keeping your personal life secret undermines trust even further. This does not mean that your office walls should be plastered with your community awards, glamour photos of your significant other, kids’ drawings or travel slides.

Antidote: let others on the team know about your family and/or significant other and put up a few photos that help people get to know something important about the personal side of your life. When they comment on your photos, ask them about their lives outside work. This will help open you up and build stronger relationships with others at work.

5. Controlling everything

“He seems obsessed with driving every detail, micromanaging the approach we take to solving problems, and making sure we do things his way — like he’s afraid we’ll mess it up.”

In general, people in the United States do not like being controlled or having someone breathe down their neck. They prefer to have a say in how they accomplish their tasks, and they often come up with great ideas that you would not have otherwise generated.

Being a “control enthusiast,” as one TV commercial puts it, undermines relationships; in particular, it feels to others like you do not trust them to handle their duties unless you micromanage them.

Antidote: Let go of control and resolve to err on the side of being too hands-off; this will help you determine how much latitude each of your team members can handle. You can always add more structure for those who clearly need a more hands-on approach.

6. Squelching growth

“I’ve asked multiple times in the past few years to try new things, develop new skills and learn new competencies, but she always comes up with a reason it won’t work right now. I don’t think she wants me to grow!”

The cousin to controlling everything, this deadly sin sends the message that you don’t want anyone to grow past you in the organization, so you must hold them back. Since one of the top 10 motivators for employees is to have opportunities for growth, squelching growth often leads to turnover on your team.

Antidote: recognize that your organization needs and expects you to grow your team members so they can take on greater scope of responsibility and back-fill your position. This also opens up more growth opportunities for you.

7. Reacting versus responding

“When a problem arises, he gets all upset — raising his voice, face getting red — and then he looks for who to blame, rather than calmly working to solve it.”

In some ways, this deadly sin undergirds all the rest, because all leaders have unconscious, irrational fears that cause them to react in a knee-jerk fashion rather than to respond in a thoughtful, considered way. This is the child inside you getting his/her buttons pushed, and then being unable to respond in an effective, adult way.

Antidote: Recognize that certain people and situations push your buttons and cause you to react rather than respond. Understand that it is unconscious, irrational fear that drives this reaction, and that if you identify the situations where this most often occurs and how you feel when you first start reacting, you will more likely stop a full-blown reaction. Even if you fail to stop it, you can always circle back and offer a genuine apology.

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