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Five Major Mistakes We Make in Thinking About Leadership

Thursday, November 21, 2019
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Our conventional way of thinking about leadership needs to change because the generally accepted perceptions we hold about leadership just don't work anymore.

As James MacGregor Burns said, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” He’s right. We don’t understand it, and that’s largely due to mistakes we’ve made in trying to make sense of the nearly infinite number of ideas, models, strategies, traits, approaches, and theories of and about leadership.

As someone who has spent the last 35 years developing leaders, I’ve seen firsthand how our thinking about leadership has created far more problems than solutions, mostly because we’ve made five major mistakes.

Number One

We tend to think there is a holy grail of leadership, a common standard that will work for all leaders. Once someone understands that, they can become a good leader.

Professions like law, medicine, accounting, and engineering have clearly defined bodies of knowledge that provide the foundation for those who want to work in the field. There is no such standard curriculum for becoming a leader. The only entry requirement is that an organization decides to hire you for a leadership position.

Number Two

We tend to think that aspiring leaders should follow the advice of successful leaders. If you do what they do, then you’ll be a successful leader too.

Wrong! The problem is that we can’t do what they do, even if we tried. First, we’re not them, and because we’re different people with different personalities, experiences, abilities, and aspirations, we can’t simply mirror what they do. Imagine trying to sing like Barbara Streisand, play baseball like Mickey Mantle, compete in gymnastics like Simone Biles, or act like Robert DeNiro. We just can’t do it. We’re not them.

Granted, we might emulate them in some ways, but we’ll do it according to what works for us, using our knowledge, skills, and experiences. We won’t and can’t be clones of them.

Number Three

We tend to think that once leaders reach a certain level of individual competence, they stop getting better. Sort of like an automobile coming off the assembly line. When you’re done, you’re done.

The truth is that leaders are always learning, growing, and changing because everything around them is changing. For leaders, with the inevitable and pervasive change in their circumstances comes the need to learn and adapt: first, to recognize what’s changed, then to decide what you need to do to respond to those changes, and finally to take the right action, including learning new skills and strategies. Life is not static and neither are leaders. The constantly changing demands of work requires constant renewal for leaders.

Number Four

We tend to think that leadership is about making people happy, striving for a lofty vision, implementing the killer strategy, or achieving a certain financial goal.

If I focus on motivation, or vision, or strategy, or goals, I’ll be a good leader. No doubt, those are important objectives and may very well serve the overall objective, which is to make the organization better. But what really matters for leaders is that they make a difference at work that is valued by key stakeholders and that prepares the organization better for the future.

Stephen Covey recommended beginning with the end in mind. The end is and should be making the organization a more productive, healthier, and durable place.

Number Five

We tend to think that if we acquire the right set of skills, practices, attributes, and characteristics, then we’ll become a good leader.

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Having the right stuff is not enough. You must have the experience and wisdom to analyze the situation and decide which of the many possible approaches and skills are needed to employ the right strategy to achieve the results that will benefit the organization and its stakeholders now and into the future.

Just being humble, or charismatic, or nurturing, or visionary isn’t enough. What is important is knowing when and how to use those (or not to use them) in ways that make a difference.

Recognizing these mistakes is the first step in challenging our conventional and flawed perceptions of leadership. The next step is to develop a revised perspective of leadership that is realistic, relevant, and practical. But where do you start? What are we missing?

What’s Missing?

In my career, as I worked with leaders, I came to see that every conversation I had with them always had one common element. Leaders always started by telling me about their situation and how it was unusual. Using such phrases as, “You need to know that,” or “My staff is not like others,” or “Let me tell you about my company.” It’s as if they were compelled to explain to me how their situation was unique and why the advice that may work for others would not apply to them and their situation.

The more I thought about that, the more I came to recognize its importance. Leaders knew that their situations influenced how they would lead. They knew that it was only when I fully understood the particulars of their situation that could I begin to help them to become a better leader. They knew that leadership was different for every leader because their situations are fundamentally different from one another.

In retrospect, it seems so obvious. No leader faces the same situation and the same set of circumstances; therefore, every leader’s approach to leadership must also be different. Leaders and their situations are different for several reasons.

The leaders are different people. If I’ve learned anything after working with leaders over the years, it’s that each leader has different experiences, education, training, family background, values and beliefs, fears and expectations, personalities and preferences.

Similarly, every leader’s staff is also different. No group of staff members is exactly like any other, partly because they are different people (just like leaders) and also because their collective experiences in the organization provide a context that affects how they can and should be led.

Every organization is different too. They have different histories, values, cultures, resources, procedures, opportunities, and challenges, all of which affect how a leader can lead.

And every organization operates in its own environment and market. There is the local or regional or national or international environments and the distinctive characteristics of the industry and its competitive landscape that influence what leaders do.

The combined effect of these myriad differences makes each leader’s situation unique.

Leadership Ain’t What It Used to Be

That each leader’s situation is unique helps to explain the various perspectives on leadership. If every leader’s situation is different, it follows that the challenges they face and how they deal with those challenges will also be different. Furthermore, the lessons they’ve learned and the advice they give will be influenced by their situations.

That basic fact changes how we need to rethink leadership. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, who said, “The future ain’t what it used to be,” we need to realize that leadership ain’t what it used to be.

Instead of beginning with an approach, or model, or theory then trying to apply it to the situation, we need to understand each leader’s situation first then build an approach that works based on an assessment of the pertinent information. We need to thoroughly understand the elements and nuances of each leader’s situation, analyze its many factors, and then decide on an approach (or set of approaches) that works given those differences.

Leaders and those of us who work with them have to be more like physicians conducting an annual examination. We need to do a thorough assessment, collect lots of data, understand the patient and their habits, family history, previous health issues, and life experiences before we prescribe a set of recommendations to promote their health and welfare. To prescribe a course of action without the collection of important information and without a thorough analysis of that data would be tantamount to malpractice.

What I am suggesting is not really anything other than what good leaders already do anyway. The only difference is that I’m suggesting that we publicly acknowledge that every leader’s situation is unique and that every leader can be more effective by first understanding the situation fully and building an approach based on an assessment of its various factors and elements.

That is easier said than done.

About the Author

Archie Tinelli has built his career developing leaders as an independent consultant, coach, author, speaker, and business school professor. He has coached partners and executives in the accounting, information technology, airline, nonprofit, and pharmaceutical industries. He has developed and implemented innovative and highly interactive leadership development programs for clients such as have ExxonMobil, State Farm Insurance, SRA International, Booz Allen Hamilton, Ernst & Young, and Abbot Point of Care.

His extensive experience, common sense approach, and forthright communications have enabled him to create practical and relevant solutions to the issues and challenges of developing leaders that make a difference in their organizations.

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