Leaders Don't Lead: The Consequences, Causes, and Cures for Leadership
who fail to provide true and proper command, inspiration and strategic
vision for their company leave a battered organization. They delude
themselves and mislead others within a losing legacy. This article
examines the causes of squandered leadership opportunities and offers
solutions for salvaging the leadership imperative: strategic planning
and mental toughness.
When Leaders Don't Lead:
The Consequences, Causes, and Cures for Leadership
Bill Cole, MS, MA and Rick Seaman, MBA
The CEO and the senior executives of the management
team occupy the formal leadership positions in a company, but titular
leadership responsibility doesn't always translate into leadership
action. There are occasions when leaders are unwilling or unable
The Costs of Hollow Leadership
The consequences of a failure to lead vary with
the severity of the situation. If market conditions are fairly stable
and the competitive environment is not particularly demanding, leadership
failures may not be that damaging. If, however, the market is going
through dramatic change, which demands equally dramatic change in
the organization, failure to actively lead the company through those
changes can be catastrophic.
The biggest risk of failed leadership is that the market changes
so much, and the company changes so little, that the company's products
and services no longer satisfy customer needs to the degree required.
Unfortunately, by the time it is absolutely clear that the survival
of the firm is at stake it is often too late to do anything about
it. The company then goes out of business.
If the firm survives, it is still seriously damaged by a failure
to lead. When the leadership failure is at the CEO level, it is
common for various senior executives to try to fill the vacuum.
Without a clear decision on direction by the CEO, this can lead
to protracted power struggles and a further deterioration in competitive
market position as the senior executives block or undermine each
other's initiatives. Key employees can get frustrated with this
lack of proper, needed action and leave the company, degrading its
strengths even more. And a failure to lead can become habit forming,
weakening the leadership "muscles" in the organization and making
it that much harder to lead in the future.
Why Leaders Fail to Lead
With all of these dire consequences, why would
executives ever fail to fulfill their leadership responsibilities?
The answer is often quite simple. Either they think they have the
option of not changing, or they know that change should take place
but somehow cannot execute it.
The option to ignore the requirements of the marketplace is never
available. Leaders who think inaction is a viable choice delude
themselves. They unfortunately believe they can continue to do what
they like and are comfortable with (not what market conditions demand),
or that they can implement changes at a rate or time that is convenient.
These are dangerous illusions. They often stem from the frequently
intoxicating sense of power and control that comes with a leadership
position. But the simple fact is that no company has the power to
overcome market conditions. Market conditions (customer needs and
desires, competitors' strengths and weaknesses, etc.) are, by definition,
outside a firm's control.
If a leader recognizes that he/she cannot control market conditions,
only respond to them, yet still fails to lead the implementation
of necessary changes, the missing ingredient is often mental toughness.
A leader who lacks mental toughness does what comes naturally, not
what is needed, and does what is easy and popular, instead of what
is difficult and unpopular. Poorly developed mental toughness skills
can cause a leader to embrace the comfort of familiar, but flawed,
actions rather than take the risk of doing something new that is
actually required by the situation. Lack of mental toughness produces
intolerance for friction and differing opinions, for new facts or
insights which challenge the accepted view, and contributes to the
misunderstanding of market conditions.
The Answer: Strategic Planning and Mental Toughness
The illusion of personal power over market conditions
can be cured with a rigorous strategic planning process that focuses
on a methodical, systematic assessment of those conditions. An objective,
measurement-based evaluation of customers' needs, the company's
strengths and weaknesses, and those of the competitors, will clarify
required changes. (Subjective, opinion-based evaluations tend to
reinforce management's preconceived notions.) With a coherent, comprehensive
strategic plan, the company has a tool to evaluate future changes
in market conditions and can more easily decide how to respond to
those changes. The CEO also gains a tool to help overcome a frequent
obstacle to change: not knowing quite what to do. Simply put, it
is easier to adjust your course if you know where you are going
in the first place.
The company will not benefit from its strategic plan if that plan
is not actually implemented. Mental toughness is required for implementation.
Specifically, implementation rests on leaders who:
- Have a high degree of self-knowledge.
- Are willing to hear unpleasant messages.
- Are able to tolerate ambiguity.
- Are able to tolerate uncertainty.
- Maintain clear and logical thought under great pressure.
- Know when to lead and when to recede.
- Pride themselves on operating at high standards of performance.
- Have, and can create in others, a healthy sense of urgency.
- Seek solution-oriented feedback with which to adjust performance.
- Do not have to be right all the time.
The preceding list does not contain attributes
that some might infer from the term "mental toughness." Nowhere
in the list is there any mention of intimidating people or treating
them badly. It does not contain any reference to being aggressive,
selfish, or insensitive with others. On the contrary, mental toughness
focuses primarily on the individual leader, self-confidence, and
task oriented self-discipline.
The path to mental toughness starts with preparation. Leaders should
seek out candid feedback from colleagues and subordinates using
a 360-degree review in order to discover blind spots that inhibit
performance, secure in the knowledge that the only really dangerous
deficiencies are the ones we refuse to confront. Armed with that
feedback they should take stock of their personal strengths and
weaknesses and make the commitment to take necessary steps to achieve
personal change. Executive coaching, time for reflection and testing,
and focused concentration will help effect those changes.
Achieving the mental toughness attributes is also made considerably
easier by consciously shifting emphasis from one's personal career-achievement
objectives to the goals of the organization. Unrelenting focus on
making the organization (and all of its members) successful and
unremitting attention to the realities of the marketplace will produce
the mental toughness needed to make the changes required by that
marketplace. This is both the role and the definition of a leader
Copyright © 2005
Bill Cole, MS, MA. and Rick Seaman, MBA. All rights reserved.
Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority
on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and
CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps
organizations and professionals achieve more success in business,
life and sports. He is a multiple Hall-Of-Fame honoree as an athlete,
coach and school alumnus, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published
book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest
levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and
corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for
questions and comments visit him at www.MentalGameCoach.com.
Rick Seaman, MBA, is the former CEO of Strategy Implementation,
Inc., a management consulting firm that helped small companies align
their strategy and culture with market conditions. He has a BS from
the U. S. Naval Academy and an MBA from Stanford.
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