Why do some great leaders go astray? And how can you ensure it doesn’t happen to you?
In one of the discussions, one of our team members asked as to why some of our leaders struggle to be consistent in their actions. Why do leaders with a great track record (built over many years) take actions that erode their strong reputation? Why do some well-regarded leaders cross the line?
This is a very pertinent question, and not an easy one to answer. The reality is that often, we do see revered leaders going astray. There are so many examples across the world (including at Ndiema).
So, drawing from this, my message this week is on why good leaders go astray. This is a very important topic for each of us to reflect on. We have just received the results of our 360-degree feedback. Let us all pause and reflect – are we living up to the expectations of our team members and peers; and even more importantly, are you living up to the expectations that you have set up for yourself? Are you being the kind of leader that you had imagined and want to be?
It is quite perplexing that supposedly capable leaders risk their hard-earned reputations and careers through seemingly “stupid” actions. If you’ve seen this happen, then think back to the people and what it was that you saw change. Do they become cocky? Do they lose the ability to self-reflect? Do they get so caught up in the performance trap that they lose perspective? Do they feel that no one is watching them and that they can get away with anything? Do they believe that they are bigger than the organisation?
I recently came across a great article written by Bill George (the author of True North), from a few years ago, called Why Leaders Lose Their Way. Do read it when you get the chance. You will find it extremely insightful. One of the key things that George points out, is that oversimplifying the categorisation of leaders into “good leaders” and “bad leaders” hampers our understanding of why good leaders can lose their way.
He emphasises that very few people go into leadership in business to cheat or do evil things. Yet, we all have the capacity to do things we will deeply regret unless we are able to develop a way to stay centred and focused.
So, don’t be quick to write someone off just because you’ve seen them make some poor decisions. The leaders you may be slotting away as bad people, aren’t so. They may have just gone astray. Because remember, they were good once to start with.
Here are some possible reasons why leaders could lose their way:
1. Losing touch with reality
Very often, the more senior you get, the more you distance yourself from the people and checks that used to keep you grounded. This could happen for various reasons – peer pressure, competition, distrust – but the more you do this, the less likely you are to take a holistic view of things. This, coupled with your span of control and independence, in some ways leads you to believe that you’re capable of making decisions and judging yourself and others all on your own. This balances out your loneliness. So, gradually, you stop listening, asking for feedback or counter opinions. Some leaders even take this to an extreme and prefer to be surrounded by people who readily agree with all them, because it reinforces their decisions.
Linked to losing touch with reality, is a fundamental leaning towards being overconfident. You lose your humility. You refuse to accept your mistakes. You start justifying your actions or looking at selective information to prove you are right. Worse, you could start hiding information or manipulating facts.
3. Success at any cost
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful and gunning for that. But when this becomes almost an obsession, to the point that you’re willing to do just about anything to be successful – or at least appear so – then that’s something to certainly watch out for. This gets magnified if your markers of success are all externally driven – position, power, money.
Your drive for success could also probably result in your inability to acknowledge failure. You start to fear failure. Basically, you think you can do no wrong. After all, it would hamper the illusion of success. So, you try to cover up or rationalise anything that would seem otherwise.
In his article, Why Good Leaders Do Bad Things, Charles D Kerns talks about ‘satisficing’ or ‘quickly simplifying’. He says that when confronted with a complicated problem, most of us tend to try to reduce it to a level that we are able to understand and explain to ourselves. We do this so that we can find solutions which are satisfactory to us. But the flip side of not taking all the data points into consideration, is that we could end up making decisions that aren’t the most optimal. If you’re anyway leaning towards being overconfident, or you don’t have enough counsel to balance your viewpoints, this could be quite debilitating.
5. Rationalising away
Sometimes, when leaders are aware that they’re straying, they try to rationalise their behaviour and choices, both to themselves as well as to the people around them, to emphasise that their choices are for the larger good. George identifies using euphemisms or softened characterisations as one of the ways in which this is done. For example, he says that “helped him make a career choice” could be a way to describe firing someone, or “inappropriate allocation of resources” is used for stealing. Irrespective of the intention, allowing for this softening of the truth seriously calls the leader’s moral compass into question.
If you’re honest with yourself, you may find that some of these pointers are things that you’ve seen yourself do too. It doesn’t always have to do with bad intentions. In some ways, this faltering is a rather natural fallout of success. Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker, in their research paper. The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders, argue that ethical violations are actually the by-product of success. Many leaders are just not equipped to deal with what success throws their way. They get complacent, they aren’t quite able to manage the privileged access to information and unrestrained control of resources; they seriously overestimate their ability to manipulate outcomes.
So, what can you do to ensure that you don’t lose your way? Here are some suggestions:
1. Know your ‘True North’
It all starts with this. You must have a strong moral compass and you must be willing follow it, especially when things get tough. This is what will guide your decisions and by extension, the decisions of people around you. It will take a lot of introspection, it will also get honed through the years, and it certainly won’t be an easy task. But you must stay focused because, even though you may build strong networks, the truth is that as a leader, there will be several times when making the final call will be your decision and yours alone. So, you have to know and trust your compass to be able to stay your ground. This will also help you make decisions in the interest of the longer term, without being swayed by immediate gains.
George suggests that before you take on a leadership role, you should ask yourself two fundamental questions: “Why do I want to lead?” and “What is the purpose of my leadership?”. This is what will guide your journey.
In fact, we start our smaller group workshops on The Ndiema Way, with a session where we reflect on our personal values and the set of principles that we have been brought up with. We believe this individual reflection is absolutely critical in our collective journey as a company.
2. Build a supportive ecosystem
Leadership can be a lonely journey if you allow it to be so. Not all leaders have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers or that they need help or guidance. If your perception of leadership is being infallible, then you need to stop and rethink it. This is what could lead you to being overconfident and losing touch with reality. In some ways, you will only be as good as the counsel you get, so surround yourself with the right people. Have trusted peers and mentors and even team members, who will push you and counter your opinions. People who will pull you back on track when needed. If you leverage this effectively, you will find yourself becoming a more grounded leader.
3. Understand your personal weaknesses
Introspect. Learn how to seek feedback and grow with it. Know your weaknesses so that you can catch yourself before they trip you up. And then work on them. Find ways to balance them out. This could be through the teams you build or the roles that you take on.
4. Don’t forget the larger picture
Even as you make your choices as a leader, it is important to keep your focus on the larger picture. So, along with your everyday and shorter-term choices, also ensure that you’re investing enough in the longer term. You can build this connect in different ways. For example, it could be through a larger commitment to sustainability or community building. Map this, not just as an organisation, but also at your own individual level. It’s very important that you continue to be invested in larger, more lasting causes.
5. Find balance
Don’t allow yourself to get so caught up in your work that you end up missing out on family, friends and the things that you enjoy outside of it. You must find ways to maintain a balance, so that you’re able to draw from each of these facets. For many people, coping with the significant stress of leadership can be overwhelming. This is where having the right balance, so that you can unwind and allow yourself to get some perspective, can be very helpful.
As always, I look forward to your perspectives.