Anatomy of a Failing Leader

Best leaders watch and avoid falling into leadership potholes while steadily moving toward better Safety and performance.

There's a lot written about how to become a better leader. But, in my mind, just as important to ascending to stellar leadership is knowing how to recognize and guard what doesn't work, to avoid "careening In places where I should not let me go" (James Taylor, in "Something in The Way She Moves"). In other words, do more of what works well and less of what doesn't. While the best leaders are excellent self-monitors, top ones request trusted truthsayers to watch for and alert them to self-defeating decisions and actions.

Here are my Sinking Seven, those relatively easy-to-monitor actions that signal as flashing-lights heading toward shortcircuiting leadership (note that some leaders fall into several of these pitfalls):

1. No/Know. This is the first and worst leadership failure alert—haughty arrogance. They brim over with over-confidence, acting as a know-it-all while saying "no" to anyone who disagrees or offers a different view. Generally such failing leaders radiate, "It's all about me. I already know and only I understand and can accomplish this." Such self-centered people don't learn—don't read, don't benchmark, are incurious.

2. In own (bitter) world. Closely related to "No/Know" leaders, these people don't listen—especially to negatives. They differ in being negative and bitter, typically assuming the worst in others. ("Anyone who gets hurt is stupid! Or just playing the system, faking an injury to get out of work!") They are defensive, lash out, shoot the messenger when brought feedback that doesn't flatter them. These predictably-sour failing leaders engender skepticism in others (as no one can know everything) and result in others giving up ("Why bother? She'll do what she wants no matter how much we tell her!") In other words, the leader's not listening to others leads to their ultimately not listening to the leader and even mocking her behind her back.

3. Takes all the credit. Such self-centered leaders demotivate others by claiming that any gains, however modest, were predominantly due to their ideas or hard work or brilliance, often in spite (not because) of others. Some such leaders actively batter others down, undercutting them out of the fear of losing power or position. At very least, their hoarding approval and failure to spread credit leads to missed opportunities, diminishing potential buy-in.

4. Command and (illusion of) control. Such leaders motivate by fear, guilt, and intimidation. They tell but don’t listen. They typically try to overpower all around them or, if of the less-tyrannical paternalistic type, treat workers like dim children. Their idea of "engaging" is "Do as I say." For them, power over others seems to be a higher objective than attaining better results. And, in most companies, where people can't be continuously and closely monitored, attempts at controlling others' Safety is a delusion. These leaders don't get (or may not ultimately care) that people who blindly follow aren't able to turn on a dime to assume control for their own Safety, won't have practiced and developed the needed mind-set to think through non-obvious situations on their own. (This is the failure of the leader, not the workers' shortcomings.) Instead, employees tend toward covering their rears out of fear—of getting fired, written up, embarrassed, etc. At best, such leaders command low-level Safety, never global-class performance or culture, all the while typically blaming their "limited" workforce.

5. Wedded to the good old days. Such leaders see maintaining the status quo as sacrosanct and change as an enemy. They're stuck to what's worked in the past, while ignoring that the task conditions and workforce they had is no longer what they currently have. They persist in doing the same old things, even when it's clear to others these strategies are outmoded, no longer work (if they ever really did). Ironically, when "tried and true ways" (such as old-style motivation through slogans or games or yearly dinners) don't get desired results, these curmudgeonly leaders double down, repeating same old efforts—but usually louder or with more emphasis—rather than changing up to try a new approach. Piloting alternate approaches to heighten engagement or prevent pervasive injuries? Not for these leaders. And when things do happen to go well, these leaders rest on their laurels—lots of patting themselves on their own shoulder—rather than looking ahead to anticipate future needs. These leaders are the opposite of visionaries; they drive ahead with their eyes firmly fixed on the rear view mirror.

6. Leader of the back. These leaders' talk and actions are at odds: They say one thing and do another—the opposite of "modeling" or "exemplifying"—"Do as I say, not as I do." Masters of sending mixed messages, they act as if rules, policies, and procedures are for others but don't apply to them. For example, not wearing required PPE when crossing a shop floor because "I'm only going a short distance. Besides, I know what I'm doing." They expect others to memorize Safety guidelines but don't bother to themselves. This disengages others, sowing discontent and distrust, and sparks resistance ("Why should I have to follow these rules when he doesn't? Just demands compliance!"). These hypocritical leaders tend to talk about taking "personal responsibility," but they mean this for everyone other them themselves.

7. Externally-driven. These leaders see others as cogs or tools to be maneuvered toward safe productivity. Because they don't appreciate the importance of internal/human factors in Safety and change, their attempts to motivate and course-correct fail. They typically default to simplistic motivational approaches such as carrot and stick or Rah-rah cheerleading. When these fail, such leaders quickly become frustrated because they don't understand strategies that foster internalized motivation and safety. Not getting others' make-up, such leaders typically Play-It-Close-To-The-Vest, failing to communicate clearly, consistently, and timely. It's always too little and too late.

Best leaders watch and avoid falling into leadership potholes while steadily moving toward better Safety and performance.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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