What Isn’t Leadership?

Ben Olds Ben Olds, Coaching, Employee Coaching, Engagement and Satisfaction, Leadership

What is leadership, anyway? Ask 100 companies, and you’ll get 100 answers, all describing different leadership models. If you break down each of these models into its competencies, you’d get a nice, comprehensive set of leadership traits to strive for. Problem is: that list will be about 80 competencies long!

What’s an executive team to do? We have to define leadership—we can’t expect people in the knowledge economy to improve and grow without setting the guardrails of what good looks like. But how do we clarify what leadership is when we actually want 80 different attributes?

Here’s an idea: define what leadership isn’t! While there are dozens of models defining what leadership is, there aren’t nearly as many traits that undermine leadership. Marshall Goldsmith, in his groundbreaking What Got You Here Won’t Get You There defines 20 habits that undermine leadership—avoid those, and you’re most of the way towards being an effective leader in any environment. As much as I respect Goldsmith’s expertise, I would argue there’s some redundancy and omissions even in his list. Below is my take on 10 practices aspiring leaders should avoid. Steer clear of these landmines and you’re most of the way to the promise land in virtually any environment:

1) Eroding trust – Trust is the backbone of psychological safety. Without your team’s trust, you are left with little ability to lead through adversity or any ounce of uncertainty. How do you erode trust? One way is to show up differently to different people (e.g., your junior folks vs. the CEO). Another is to show up differently to the same people in different situations (e.g., when things are calm vs. when all hell is breaking loose). Remaining true to your authentic self in all times, with all people, will establish a consistent impression of who you are, and help build trust with your team.

2) Not sticking up for your team – Your team isn’t perfect, and they will screw up. That’s actually to be encouraged—you want them pushing themselves, creating, experimenting, etc. The flip side of that encouragement is that you have to make it safe for them to make mistakes. It’s one thing to create that safety inside your team, but what about with outsiders, in the organization? Your team needs to know you have their backs—that if your team screws up, you’ll take responsibility for it and protect them in the organization. That’s your job… own the results of your team, especially when they aren’t great.

3) Taking credit for the successes – One sucky aspect of leadership is that you have to stick up for your team by taking ownership of mistakes, but deflect credit when the team succeeds. Positive results are an opportunity for you to publicly celebrate your team. Take credit for the team’s successes, even if you deserve most of the credit, and they’ll question why they bust their hump for you. Give them the moment to shine.

4) Explaining your decisions as “because I said so” – How many of you responded well to this parenting style growing up? Enroll people in the broader purpose of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and explain the reasoning for your decisions. You don’t necessarily have to open the decision up for debate. But you do need to provide the context and education in order to give meaning to their contributions.

5) Micromanaging – Get the right people on the team, give them the direction you’re heading in, and get out of their way.

6) Holding onto C-players – Get the wrong people off the team. It demotivates your stars to hold onto underperformers.

7) Being unclear and unavailable – Your team needs guidance. If they don’t understand the direction you’re heading in, you have to clarify. And if you’re unintentionally unclear, you have to be available to clarify a different way.

8) Disrespecting teammates – Obviously we know not to call our teammates bad names. But did you know that you may be disrespecting them in more subtle ways? They have commitments to others in the organization, to their own aspirations, to their families, to their ideas, etc. Ignoring any of these aspects of a colleague is disrespectful.

9) Enabling defensiveness – What you permit, you promote. If you permit yourself (or others) to resist changing in response to feedback, you are shutting down learning across your team. Much better… apologize for doing something wrong, or for even creating the impression that you did something wrong, and commit to changing. Model vulnerability, and you’ll see others try it out. And for God’s sake, make it safe for people to question/disagree/challenge you openly!

10) Not investing in their personal success – Obviously your team’s success should be your primary focus. But if your team senses that it’s your only focus, or worse, if your personal success is more important than their personal success, you’ll disengage your team. Remember, your job is to replace yourself, so you want the best opportunities and development for your team members.

Peter Drucker once said, “Most leaders don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”

What should you stop?