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When Leaders Don't Lead: The Consequences, Causes, and Cures for Leadership Failure.    Leaders 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.    1045 words.
The Mental Game Coach, Peak Performance Playbook

When Leaders Don't Lead:

The Consequences, Causes, and Cures for Leadership Failure

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 to lead.

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:

  1. Have a high degree of self-knowledge.
  2. Are willing to hear unpleasant messages.
  3. Are able to tolerate ambiguity.
  4. Are able to tolerate uncertainty.
  5. Maintain clear and logical thought under great pressure.
  6. Know when to lead and when to recede.
  7. Pride themselves on operating at high standards of performance.
  8. Have, and can create in others, a healthy sense of urgency.
  9. Seek solution-oriented feedback with which to adjust performance.
  10. 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 who leads.

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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