There are people in every organization whose titles indicate they are leaders. Often, and unfortunately, their employees beg to differ. Oh, they don’t say it directly, not to the boss’s face, anyway. They say it with their ho-hum performance, their games of avoidance, their dearth of enthusiasm. Leaders—real leaders who have mastered their craft—don’t preside over such lackluster followers. If reading this makes you squirm with recognition, leadership expert John Hamm says you may have a problem lurking.
“When times are good, not-so-great leaders can get by,” says Hamm, author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership. “They’re cushioned by a surplus of cash, and their missteps are covered up by the thrill of top-line growth, which hides a multitude of sins. But when the cloak of prosperity falls away, their mediocrity is ruthlessly exposed.
Hamm has spent his career studying the practitioners of great leadership via his work as a venture capitalist, board member, high-level consultant, and professor of leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. In his new book, he shares what he has learned and brings those lessons to life with real-world stories.
“These aren’t radically new ideas,” asserts Hamm. “Human nature hasn’t changed that much over the millennia, so neither have the core laws of leadership. It’s just that in the heat of the day-to-day battle, leaders inevitably lose their grip on the basic principles of leadership. In other cases, they never learned these fundamentals or mastered them earlier in their career. And finally, sad to say, some people just aren’t cut out to lead and need to understand why.”
Think about it this way, he says. Anyone can snap a photo that looks okay or cook a meal that satiates hunger. However, when an award-winning photographer takes the picture, or a five-star chef prepares dinner, anyone can tell a master has been at work. The same is true of leadership. The small deficiencies in how the novice leads, as opposed to the unusually excellent professional, create a radical difference in the outcome.
So how can you tell whether you really are a great leader in the minds of your employees—or whether, to paraphrase the old television commercial, you’re just playing one on TV? Unfortunately, the depth and breadth of the mistakes you make often tell the true tale.
Below, excerpted from Unusually Excellent, Hamm reveals ten of the most common, deeply destructive mistakes organizational leaders make.
MISTAKE #1: “Role playing” authenticity rather than living it.
Authenticity is about owning your failures and shortcomings. It’s about allowing others to really know you, vulnerabilities, warts, and all. It’s about having the guts to seek feedback from others in a sincere and genuine fashion. And it’s about being able to maintain your authentic self in a situation of meaningful consequence—where your decisions affect others, sometimes on a grand scale and sometimes in very personal or dramatic ways.
Knowing who you really are and holding true to yourself in the most difficult moments is the “ground zero” of leadership credibility. It’s the only way to create the trusted connections you need to lead with real influence. Unfortunately, leaders stumble for a variety of reasons: They get scared and veer away at the last moment, or they sacrifice the truth on the altar of protecting other people’s feelings, or they simply seek to avoid the pain of conflict.
“When we make the decision to compromise our authenticity, we end up delivering a message that may feel ‘easier’ but that isn’t truly what we want or need to say,” explains Hamm. “Deception conspires with fear and seduces us down a dark road of believing we can ‘fake it,’ just this one time and it will all be okay.
“But the downstream impact of making such a choice in a moment of stress or carelessness can be devastating,” he adds. “For one thing, it compromises the integrity of that all-important communications channel between leader and follower by changing expectations about the behavior of both. Worse, it sets a precedent for this type of authentic behavior that over time can trap a leader into an expectation or pattern of always behaving that way—and over the course of years this is a soul-destroying situation.”
MISTAKE #2: Underestimating the impact of small acts of dishonesty.
In his book, Hamm describes an incident that took place at a famous, fast-growing technology company. A young, inexperienced, but talented associate had what he thought was a plan for a powerful new marketing initiative. So he asked the CMO to broker a meeting with the CEO to make a presentation on the subject. The CMO agreed, and the meeting took place.
During the presentation the CEO was polite, if noncommittal. He gave the presenter a sort of passively accepting feedback—“Nice point,” “Interesting,” and so on—and wrapped up the meeting quickly, thanking the presenter for his initiative. But the CMO could sense a duplicity in the CEO’s behavior and attitude as the parties all headed back to their respective offices. Then, ten minutes after the meeting, the CEO called the CMO into his office and said, in essence, “That presentation was absolutely terrible. That guy’s an idiot. I want you to fire him, today.”
“The story of the firing spread (as it always does) throughout the company, morale slipped, and the CMO never completely trusted his boss again,” writes Hamm. “The CEO’s reputation for trustworthiness had been wounded forever. The wreckage from one seemingly small act of dishonesty was strewn all over the company and could never be completely cleaned up.”
MISTAKE #3: Being two-faced (and assuming others won’t notice).
In another scenario from Hamm’s book, a CEO had one executive on his team whom he really trusted and in whom he could confide. One day, a couple of other members of that company’s executive team made a presentation at a board meeting that didn’t go so well. Later, as they were walking down a hallway, the CEO turned to his trusted executive and said, “We need to get rid of those guys. They were a disaster at the board meeting—they embarrassed me.”
But then nothing happened. Life at the company went on as before, and the targeted executives remained in their jobs. In the months that passed, the trusted executive found himself in meetings attended by both the CEO and the targeted executives. And it was as if the whole incident had never happened. The CEO joked with the men, complimented them on their work, and treated them as long-term team members.
As the trusted executive watched this, he asked himself: Did the boss mean what he said? Does he ever mean what he says? Did he change his mind—and when did that happen? Or is he too gutless to follow through with his plans? And if he’s willing to stab those guys in the back and then pretend to be their trusting partner, how do I know he hasn’t been doing the same thing with me? Just how duplicitous is this guy?
“Such are the dangers of shooting from the hip without realizing that a communication such as the one just described does not qualify as a ‘casual’ comment—once said, it must be resolved, and if it is not, there is a lingering odor that in one way or another, will remain smelly until fixed,” writes Hamm.
MISTAKE #4: Squelching the flow of bad news.
Do you (or others under you) shoot the messenger when she brings you bad news? If so, you can be certain that the messenger’s priority is not bringing you the information you need: It’s protecting her own hide. That’s why in most organizations good news zooms to the top, while bad news—data that reveals goals missed, problems lurking, or feedback that challenges or defeats our strategy—flows uphill like molasses in January.
Unusually excellent leaders understand this reality, says Hamm. To combat it they work hard to build a primary and insatiable demand for the unvarnished facts, the raw data, the actual measurements, the honest feedback, the real information.
“We must install a confidence and a trust that leaders in the organization value the facts, the truth, and the speed of delivery, not the judgments or interpretations of ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and that messengers are valued, not shot,” writes Hamm. “If we can do this then the entire behavior pattern of performance information flow will change for the better…Very few efforts will yield the payback associated with improving the speed and accuracy of the information you need most to make difficult or complex decisions.”
MISTAKE #5: Punishing “good failures.”
Great organizations encourage risk-taking. Why? Because innovation requires it. There can be no reward without risk. But if your employees take a risk and fail, and you come down on them like a hammer, guess what? They’ll never risk anything again. Unusually excellent leaders deliberately create high-risk, low-cost environments—a.k.a. cultures of trust—where people don’t live in fear of the consequences of failure.
Hamm says a digital camera is the perfect analogy to the kind of culture you want to create.
“There is no expense associated with a flawed digital photograph—financial or otherwise,” he explains. “You just hit the ‘delete’ button, and it disappears. No wasted film, slides, or prints. And we are aware of this relationship between mistakes and consequences when we pick up the camera—so we click away, taking many more photos digitally than we would have in a world of costly film. Because we know failure is free, we take chances, and in that effort we often get that one amazing picture that we wouldn’t have if we were paying for all the mistakes.”
MISTAKE #6: Letting employee enthusiasm fizzle.
A big part of a leader’s job is to be compelling. That means you must recruit “A players” through a big vision of the future and a personal commitment to a mission. But it’s not enough to recruit once and then move on. Never assume “once enrolled, always enrolled.” Even the best followers need to be reminded again and again how fun, rewarding, and meaningful their work is.
In other words, when people seem to be losing their spark, they need to become “born again” employees. (Time to put on your evangelist cloak!)
“Enthusiasm is a renewable resource,” says Hamm. “Part of being compelling is reminding yourself that people want and need to be reenrolled all the time. This message doesn’t have to be over the top to be compelling. It may just entail reminding your team, once per quarter, why you come to the office every day, and letting them reflect on the reason they do the same.”
MISTAKE #7: Refusing to deal with your “weakest links.”
Chronic underperformers spoil things for everyone else. They create resentment among employees who are giving it their all, and they drag down productivity. Leaders must have a plan for getting these problem children off the playground—and they must act on that plan without procrastination.
“The worst scenario of all is to have a plan for dealing with underperformers, to identify who those individuals are, and then not pull the trigger on the announced consequences, for reasons of sentimentality, weakness, or favoritism—or worst of all, an attempt to preserve leadership popularity,” writes Hamm.
Nothing can be more damaging to the morale and esprit de corps of a team than that kind of leadership. It destroys your authenticity, your trustworthiness, and your ability to compel others to act. It is the end of you as a leader. Indeed, it is better to have no weakest-link plan at all than one with obvious liabilities.
MISTAKE #8: Allowing people to “fail elegantly.”
There are two basic operating modes for organizations under high-stakes execution pressure, writes Hamm. One is the mentality of winning, which we know about; the other, less obvious to the untrained eye, the disease of failing elegantly, is a very sophisticated and veiled set of coping behaviors by individuals, the purpose of which is to avoid the oncoming train of embarrassment when the cover comes off the lousy results that we’d prefer no one ever sees.
Essentially, when people stop believing they can win, some then devote their energy to how best to lose. This fancy losing often manifests as excuse-making, blaming, tolerating cut corners, and manipulating and editorializing data. Unusually excellent leaders know how to recognize these symptoms and intervene with urgency and strength of conviction to get everyone on the high road—a.k.a., the winner’s mindset.
“Passive acceptance of failure, and the rationalization that always goes with it, is a cancer that can begin anywhere in the organization, then metastasize to every office, including your own,” says Hamm. “You can prevent it by setting clear and precise standards of behavior for everyone on the team, as well as clear consequences for the violation of those standards. And you can control it through continuous and open communication with every member of your team (some who will spot the problem before you do) and, where necessary, redundant processes and systems.
“Most of all, you can cure the acceptance of failure by setting yourself as an example of zero tolerance (along with a welcome for honest admissions of error), of precision and care in all of your work, a clear-eyed focus on unvarnished results, and most of all, an unyielding and unwavering commitment to your success.”
MISTAKE #9: Delaying decisions until it’s too late.
Not making a decision is almost always worse than making a bad decision, says Hamm. As long as they aren’t utterly ill-advised and catastrophic, bad decisions at least keep the organization moving in pace with changing events—and thus can often be rectified by a course correction.
Not making a decision at all, although it may seem the safe choice—because, intellectually, it positions you to make the right move when the reality of the situation is more revealed—actually strips your organization of its momentum, stalling it at the starting line, and makes it highly unlikely that you can ever get up to speed in time to be a serious player.
“Unusually excellent leaders don’t just make decisions; they pursue them,” writes Hamm. “Because the speed of the organization is often its destiny—and because that speed directly correlates with the speed with which its decisions are made or not made—these leaders are haunted by the fear that somewhere in the organization a critical decision is being left orphaned and unmade.”
MISTAKE #10: Underestimating the weight your words—and your moods—carry.
Hamm tells the story of John Adler, who, prior to his CEO tenure at Adaptec, was a senior vice president at Amdahl, one of the pioneering computer companies of Silicon Valley. One morning as he was walking down the long hallway to his office, he encountered some maintenance guys who were doing repairs. He greeted them cheerfully and then, just to make conversation, mentioned how difficult it must be to work in such a dark hallway.
The next morning when Adler came to work, he was surprised to find five maintenance men all carefully replacing every light bulb in the hallway. When he questioned the flurry of activity, the men said, “We’re replacing the light bulbs, boss. You said it was too dark in here.” Hamm says this story illustrates why leaders need to think carefully about every word they say—because others certainly will.
“Every conversation with, and every communication from, a leader carries added weight because of the authority of the position behind it,” writes Hamm. “Have a bad day and snap at one of your subordinates, and that person may go back to a cramped cubicle and start updating his résumé, or go out and get drunk, or miss a night’s sleep. Your momentary bad day could be his nightmare—and something he will remember forever. Your mood matters; don’t make it your employees’ problem.”
So if you recognize any of these mistakes in yourself, are you forever doomed as a leader? Of course not, says Hamm. We’re all human, and we can all learn from our errors and redeem ourselves. And yet, he adds, there is no shame in realizing that leadership is not for everyone—or in declining to lead if it’s not for you. (In your heart you probably already know.)
“Leadership is a choice,” he says. “It is a deep, burning desire to engage with people and rally a community to achieve greatness. Leadership can be difficult, thankless, frustrating, maddening work at times. It is only the passion of leading on the field—the thrill of looking other human beings in the eyes and seeing their energy, willingness, trust, and commitment—that makes it all worthwhile, in a very quiet, private way.”