Leadership Barometer 50 Humility

May 15, 2020

Humility is a key characteristic for everyone to embrace. True humility is rarely seen in the ranks of leaders.

Ego, rather than humility, seems to be the more common trait in management circles. Let’s examine why this is and suggest some ideas to modify the pattern.

Anyone who has reached a leadership position has a tale to tell. He or she got there through a series of steps and events, some of them deserved and some of them just being in the right place at the right time or knowing the right people.

We can believe in synchronicity or nepotism, but still it usually takes a lot of energy and talent to get ahead. People in the organization may look at a newly appointed leader and remark how he “lucked into it,” but, as Earl Nightingale said in Lead The Field, “Luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity.”

There should be some level of personal satisfaction for a leader when he or she emerges from the pack and is elevated. It is a kind of milestone that should be celebrated.

Upon reaching a higher level, the leader quickly becomes aware of an increase in power and influence. I once got a big promotion, and a sincere IT employee in the new organization started calling me “thou” and “thee” until I put an end to it.

It is very easy to let the trappings or perks of a higher level inflate one’s ego. There is nothing wrong with appreciating one’s self worth if it is kept in proper perspective and the person also appreciates and publicly acknowledges the worth of others.

Unfortunately, many leaders do lose perspective and start acting like jerks. Scott Adams, inventor of the Dilbert Cartoon Series would have needed to make a living in some other field if it were not for hubris on the part of leaders.

The role of humility in creating and maintaining trust in organizations was well documented by Jim Collins in Good to Great. Collins identified passion and humility as two common traits of the most effective leaders – he called them “level 5 leaders.”

It is easy to see the impact of a conceited leader on the organization. If the leader is so brilliant, then nobody else needs to look out for the rocks under the surface. People lose heart and will to help the cause.

This behavior forces the leader to be more all-knowing and perfect because real support is not there.

Warren Bennis put it this way, “One motive for turning a deaf ear to what others have to say seems to be sheer hubris: leaders often believe they are wiser than all those around them.”

The literature on executive narcissism tells us that the self-confidence top executives need can easily blur into a blind spot, an unwillingness to turn to others for advice. Leaders who are convinced they are so macho and smart have a difficult time hearing what people are really saying.

I love James O’Toole’s observation, “…it is often the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone that leads to a loss of hearing.”

It would be easy to say “don’t be too full of yourself” and show the benefits of humility. Unfortunately for the narcissist leader, changing the thought patterns and behaviors is extremely difficult. The problem is the blind spots that Bennis refers to.

Daniel Goleman also noticed the same tendency when he identified that leaders with low Emotional Intelligence have the most significant blind spots.

The issue of leader hubris is perhaps the most common schism that exists between the senior levels and the workers. If it is so important, what can we do about it?

Is there a kind of anti-hubris powder we can sneak into the orange juice of over inflated executives? Oh, if it were only that easy.

What we are talking about here is reeducating the boss with influence from below. We want to let him know that his own attitude is getting in the way of trust. Reeducating the boss is always tricky. It reminds me of the adage, “Never wrestle a pig…you get all muddy and the pig loves it.”

What do the sailors do if they are facing a Captain Bligh every day? Mutiny is one option, but it can get pretty bloody.

The road to enlightenment is through education. One suggestion is to form a kind of support network with the employees and leaders on the topic of leadership. Book clubs where employees along with their leaders take a lunch hour once a week to study the topic can begin a constructive dialog.

You can’t just march into the bosses office and say, “You are a total narcissist, knock it off and get down from your pedestal.” You need to use a water drop treatment with lots of Socratic Questions.

Shaping the thought patterns of a superior in the organization is a slow process, like changing the face of the planet in Arizona. Drop by drop and particle by particle, the sand and soil have been moved to reveal the Grand Canyon. Changing a leader’s approach might not take eons, but the slow shaping process is the same, only in human years.

Some leaders will remain clueless regardless. I know one leader who will go to her grave totally blind when it comes to her attitude about her own capability and superiority.

If she was reading this passage, she would be nodding her head affirmative and be 100% convinced that I was referring to somebody else, not her. Perhaps the only hope for a leader like this is some form of radical shock treatment in the form of a series of pink slips.

If you are a leader, try this little test. If you are inclined to think you don’t have any hubris and are a humble servant leader all the time, chances are you have some serious blind spots. Go and get it checked out!

If your mental picture is one of an imperfect person trying to learn more about how to lead, then you are probably okay.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.


Leadership Barometer 43 Toxic Leaders

March 22, 2020

We are all familiar with the word “toxic” and recognize that toxic substances are known to cause human beings serious injury or death. We are also aware that some individuals have mastered the skill of being toxic to other people.

When a toxic person is the leader of an organization, the performance of that unit will typically be less than half what it would be under a leader who builds trust. There is documented evidence (see Trust Across America statistics) that high trust groups outperform low trust groups by a factor of two to five times.

Thankfully, the majority of leaders are not toxic. One estimate given by LTG Walter F. Ulmer in an article entitled “Toxic Leadership” (Army, June 2012) is that 30-50% of leaders are essentially transformational, while only 8-10% are essentially toxic. The unfortunate reality is that one toxic leader in an organization does such incredible damage, he or she can bring down an entire culture without even realizing it.

Why would a leader speak and behave in a toxic way if he or she recognizes the harm being done to the organization?

Is it because leaders are just not aware of the link between their behaviors and performance of the group?

Is it because they are totally unaware of the fact that their actions are toxic to others?

Is it because they are lazy and just prefer to bark out orders rather than work to encourage people?

While there are instances where any of these modes might be in play, I think other mechanisms are responsible for most of the lamentable behaviors of toxic leaders.

Toxic leaders do understand that employees are generally unhappy working under them. What they fail to see is the incredible leverage they are leaving off the table. They just do not believe there is a better way to manage, otherwise they would do that.

If you are in an organization, there is a possibility you are in daily contact with one or more toxic leaders. There are three possibilities here: 1) you have a leader working for you who is toxic, 2) you are a toxic leader yourself, but do not know it or want to admit it, or 3) you are working for a toxic leader or have one higher in the chain of command. I will give some tips you can use for each of these cases.

Toxic Leader Working for you

This person needs to become more aware that he or she is operating at cross purposes to the goals of the organization. Do this through education and coaching. Once awareness is there, then you can begin to shape the behavior through leadership development and reinforcement. It may be that this person is just not a good fit for a leadership role. If the behaviors are not improved, then this leader should be removed.

You are a toxic leader

It is probably not obvious to you how much damage is being done by your treatment of other people. They are afraid to tell you what is actually going on, so you are getting grudging compliance and leaving their maximum discretionary effort unavailable to the organization. Trust will not grow in an environment of fear.

The antidote here is to genuinely assess your own level of toxicity and change it if you are not happy with the answer. This can be accomplished through getting a leadership coach or getting some excellent training. Try to read at least one good leadership book every month.

You are working for a toxic leader

In my experience, this is the most common situation. It is difficult and dangerous to retrofit your boss to be less toxic. My favorite saying for this situation is, “Never wrestle a pig. You get all muddy and the pig loves it.”

So what can you do that will have a positive impact on the situation without risking loss of employment? Here are some ideas that may help, depending on how severe the problem is and how open minded your boss is:

1. Create a leadership growth activity in your area and invite the boss to participate. Use a “lunch and learn” format where various leaders review some great books on leadership. I would start with some of the Warren Bennis books or perhaps Jim Collins’ Good to Great.

2. Suggest that part of the performance gap is a lack of trust in higher management and get some dialog on how this could be improved. By getting the boss to verbalize a dissatisfaction with the status quo, you can gently shape the issue back to the leader’s behaviors. The idea is to build a recognition of the causal relationship between culture and performance.

3. Show some of the statistical data that is available that links higher trust to greater productivity. The Trust Across America Website is a great source of this information.

4. Bring in a speaker who specializes in improving culture for a quarterly meeting. Try to get the speaker to interface with the problem leader personally offline. If the leader can see some glimmer of hope that a different way of operating would provide the improvements he or she is seeking, then some progress can be made.

5. Suggest some leadership development training for all levels in the organization. Here it is not necessary to identify the specific leader as “the problem,” rather, discuss how improved leadership behaviors at all levels would greatly benefit the organization.

6. Reinforce any small directional baby steps in the right direction the leader inadvertently shows. Reinforcement from below can be highly effective if it is sincere. You can actually shape the behavior of your boss by frequent reminders of the things he or she is doing right.

It is a rare leader who will admit, “Our performance is far off the mark, and since I am in charge, it must be that my behaviors are preventing people from giving the organization their maximum discretionary effort.”

Those senior leaders who would seriously consider this statement are the ones who can find ways to change through training and coaching. They are the ones who have the better future.

Most toxic leaders will remain with their habits that sap the vital energy from people and take their organizations in exactly the opposite direction from where they want to go.

Another key reason why toxic leaders fail to see the opportunity staring them in the face is a misconception about Leadership Development. The typical comment is, “We are not into the touchy-feely stuff here. We do not dance around the maypole and sing Kum-ba-yah while toasting marshmallows by the campfire.”

The problem here is that several leadership training methods in the past have used outdoor experiential training to teach the impact of good teamwork and togetherness. Senior leaders often feel too serious and dignified for that kind of frivolity, so they sit in their offices and honestly believe any remedial training needs to be directed toward the junior leaders.

To reduce the impact of a toxic leader, follow the steps outlined above, and you may be able to make a large shift in performance over time while preserving your job. You can even use this article as food for thought and pass it around the office to generate dialog on how to chart a better future for the organization.




Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.




Leadership Barometer 14 Emulate Level Five Leaders

September 3, 2019

There are a few leading indicators of leadership caliber that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall skill. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly.

Here is one of my favorite measures.

Emulate Level 5 Leaders

Jim Collins and his staff of MBA researchers did the business world a huge favor when they wrote the book Good to Great. I consider that book one of the best business books of the past 20 years.

In looking at why some organizations consistently outperform others, the team came up with a model containing many new concepts. None of them were totally unheard of before, but the model packaged the concepts in a coherent process oriented thesis that is most helpful.

In case you have not read this book, I recommend it to be purchased, read, dog-eared, and put into active practice – not on the shelf.

Excellence

The concept of level 5 leadership is one of the core elements in the book. Collins found that all of the organizations that met his rigorous standard for excellence at that time were headed up by exceptional leaders.

It is interesting that after studying hundreds of variables about what make these leaders so effective, they were able to boil them down to two common denominators. These were 1) a passion for the work, and 2) humility.

Level 5 Leaders are fanatically driven to produce results, and they produce consistently superior results. Self-effacing and modest, these leaders are workers rather than showoffs. They are more plow horse than show horse.

Window/mirror analogy

An example of Level 5 Leaders in action is the window/mirror analogy. Level 5 Leaders look out the window and attribute business success to factors other than themselves. When things go poorly, however, they see the window as a mirror and blame themselves, taking full responsibility.

In comparison, many CEOs, not Level 5 Leaders, often did just the opposite – they looked in the mirror taking credit for success, but looked out the window assigning blame for disappointing results to others.

I believe there are very few level 5 leaders in the world today. If you happen to know someone you can put up to that standard you are truly lucky.

Study that person and see if you can get him or her as a mentor. It will improve your rate of progress as a leader by 2-3 times your current rate.

If you do not know of anyone who rises to that standard, one thing you can do is read some of the biographies of leaders outlined in Good to Great. It will give you some specific habits of these outstanding leaders.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.