The "Infallible" Leader: How to Survive When You're Not Perfect
The "Infallible" Leader: How to Survive When You're Not Perfect
Three critical touchstones consistently work for leaders in a pressure cooker, and help them to survive their own missteps in times of crisis and change.
Leaders don't get it right all the time, which sometimes is a big let-down when the person stepping into a high-profile leadership role has widespread support as the best qualified candidate for the job. Take President Obama, for instance. Already he's had a few missteps in bumping up against variables —situations and people —beyond his control. Politics aside, his adjustments and calibrations are similar to those of all new leaders challenged with driving a change agenda.
One maxim is clear for leaders today: The bigger the crisis, the greater the likelihood that a misstep —or ten —will occur. Because leaders don't have pixie dust or crystal balls, they can’t know when the mistakes will happen or in what area. What's more, a serious mistake not only slows a leader's momentum, but people's loss of faith and optimism can snowball when the leader/hero turns out to be just another imperfect human like all the rest of us. That is a moment of truth for leaders, when they reveal what they're made of under pressure. While they need to be nimble in a crisis, leaders must also act from an unmoving foundation. That is the leader's ethical, principled core: his or her character.
In a crisis, leaders are called upon to step up to their most conscious, awake selves. This is the leader's lifesaver when he or she feels tossed and the boat gets leaky. It is not the time to default to unconscious habits and fallbacks or allow knee-jerk reactions to surface. This crisis, too, shall pass—in the meantime, how can a leader speed it along?
Three critical touchstones consistently work for leaders in a pressure cooker, and help them to survive their own missteps in times of crisis and change:
1) Focus on Purpose and Goals. Remember your highest purpose and goals for the organization. Take time, write them down. Talk to your key people, and let them know you are not wavering from your resolve. You can still inspire people when the way feels rough. In fact, that is exactly when you need to inspire them. We do this best together; it is better to be "we" than "us and them." Course correction may well be called, but it doesn’t alter the ultimate destination.
2) Admit Mistakes —Yes, You Can. This is a big one. If leaders could just say, in Obama’s words, "I screwed up," they would at least get credibility points for seeing and owning what everyone else knows. The first person you need to admit your mistakes to is you — without fear, or blame, or belittling yourself. You are human, and so is everyone around you, even your most trusted advisors. And with them, acknowledge the situation, and even their part, without castigation. Shaming people only creates fear and alienation, which increases the likelihood of future mistakes because people tend to play their cards closer.
Pay attention not only to the decision, but to how it was made. Maybe key stakeholders were ignored, maybe the important data was discounted, maybe the decision was too quick or took too long. Leaders can become committed to faulty courses of action by an inability to see the limits of their own infallibility. There is only one crime when an honest mistake is made: to deny it and fail to learn what you can.
3) Take Care of Yourself. Sleep, exercise, eat decent food, and keep good and comforting people around you. Take breaks from the drama, turn off email for some part of every day, read a good novel, play with your kids, throw the ball for your dog. There is nothing that undermines confidence in a leader like watching him gain weight or drag in with bags under his eyes. That hour spent walking by the lake is not wasted time; it's renewal time. Let’s hope that President Obama’s coveted Blackberry has pictures of his kids and a schedule that includes some basketball.
Those three critical "do’s" are best balanced with the top three "don’ts" —the patterns to avoid at all costs. Every leader is different, of course, but we all have little things we do to protect ourselves, to dodge the slings and arrows. The key is to be self-aware enough to notice when the default is harmful and step into a different way of acting. These are the most common patterns to avoid:
1) Don’t Compromise Your Way to Mediocrity. Don’t buckle under the pressure to compromise on everything. A little something for everyone can end up with a big mess for the organization, and no meaningful change or improvement in the long run. Check each compromise — is it principled? Does it align with the higher purpose and goals you have set? Sometimes, for the good of the whole, people's pet projects have to be stopped or delayed. Do damage control with those people, so that they don't feel invisible or disregarded. Respect does not mean you capitulate, but that you care about the personal and organizational impacts of your decisions.
2) Don’t Disappear or Stop Communicating. Sometimes leaders feel distracted or insecure in the midst of criticism and noise. No wonder. But the last thing you want to do is leave the stage to your critics. You have a message to get out there — a message of hope, usually, tempered with realism. The only way to get that across is to be visible and vocal, recognizing that at some point you, human again, do need to insulate yourself from those who would undermine your resolve with their anxiety or objections.
3) Don’t Tolerate Being Undermined. Understand, but don’t tolerate, those on your staff who are truly undermining you. In crisis, everyone has ways of acting out. Fear does that to a person. But you as a leader must nip in the bud any actions by those around you that may undermine your authority or set back your important agenda. It might be time for a tough talk with someone, to let them know how their actions are impacting your efforts. Sometimes, it can even be time for someone to move along, especially if they are in a key role of influence, or own a critical piece of the change process.
On the other hand, be slow to assume all naysayers are undermining you, or "against" you. If they’re talking TO you, they’re not just talking ABOUT you. Very often, critics are trying to support the greater effort and purpose by naming barriers or gaps. I have seen leaders marginalize the very people they needed most because they were hearing too much bad news from them. Credible people in organizations are usually truth tellers, and while the truth hurts, you need it for integrity in your greater purpose and plans.
While these six strategies won’t make you perfect, they will go a long way to making your success as a new leader more likely. And let’s face it: perfection is overrated.
Published on 02/17/09 04:04 PM