Six Leadership Sins You Can't Afford To Commit

As a leader, be honest. Have you separated “lean and mean” from “cheap and petty”?

Having your own empire might sound brilliant, but it didn’t do much good for Julius Caesar, the first emperor of Rome. After joining the Roman Army, Caesar quickly moved up through the ranks, winning a civil war and extending the powers of the Roman Empire throughout the globe.

By 48 B.C., his successes on the battlefield led him to be elected as the sole ruler of Rome. Returning from the battlefield to look after his people, Caesar attempted to make radical changes in the way Rome was governed. He was so powerful that he could pick and choose which politicians could stay to advise him and sack the ones that didn’t agree with him.

Caesar’s supposed friends and closest advisors — some 60 politicians in total — thought that the power had gone to Caesar’s head and that he must be stopped in order to save Rome. So on the 15th of March 44 B.C., the members of the Senate stabbed him to death with knives they had hidden under their togas.

I think there are two lessons we can take from that incident. One, beware of people wearing togas, and two, make sure you know what doesn’t work when it comes to leading others. That’s why my program on “The Leadership Payoff: How The Best Leaders Bring Out The Best In Others … And So Can You” remains one of my most requested programs.

In the last 25 years of researching and teaching leadership, I’ve seen an awful lot of fads come and go. I’ve also seen a flood of leadership efforts that produced far less than the leaders hoped or expected. They wasted great amounts of time, money, and energy on activities that produced little more than frustration.

However, in those 25 years, I’ve also learned there are several leadership activities that almost NEVER work. If you’re leading a company, a team, a committee, a department, a region, a volunteer group, or even your family, you would be well advised to AVOID the following.

1. Barking out orders.

Most people hate being told what to do, and yet all too many leaders enjoy giving orders. In fact, that may be the only leadership style they know.

Unfortunately, order-barking comes with several inherent problems. The first being … giving orders rarely brings about quality, committed action on the part of the employees. They tend to do just enough to get by and just enough to stay out of trouble.

The other problem with order-barking is that it only relies on one motivating factor … the employees’ fear of what might happen if they don’t do what they’re told. That kind of motivation is very shallow and very fleeting.

By contrast, effective leaders, according to Harvard professor John Kotter, are in the business of getting people to make changes, willingly and eagerly. And that typically requires the leader to “sell” his/her ideas, through dialogue, gradually getting people to buy into a new vision, as they see how the organization’s vision will help them achieve more of their own goals.

2. Showing favoritism.

The fact is … most of us have our favorites at work … even in our families. Our favorite coworkers (and favorite friends and family members) are probably the ones who make our lives easier. But as author Phil Van Hooser writes, “There is a major difference between having favorites and showing favoritism.”

Every employee expects to be treated fairly, and as a leader, you must be very careful about meeting those expectations.

One simple remedy is to share your time with everyone … as much as that is practical and feasible. After all, if your group is large, you probably spend most of your time with your highest-ranking employees, passing assignments and feedback down the line. Be sure you spend some time with folks you don’t interact with so often. They’re also important, and they need to know it.

3. Hiring the wrong people.

The best leaders have always surrounded themselves with capable, devoted followers. And yes, I know it’s hard to find good people, even in a challenging economy. But it’s well worth your time and effort to find those people. As leadership coach Monica Wofford says, “Finding the right person for the job is far more important than finding a person to fill the job.”

Or as I advise my clients and my audiences, you must hire for attitude and train for skills. And CEO of Costco, Jim Sinegal, echoes my sentiments. He says, “If you hire good people, give them good jobs and pay them good wages, generally speaking something good is going to happen.”

Of course, every leader makes a poor hiring choice once in a while. If you do so, recognize it … fast. Then deal with it. Either change the position or change the person. And when it’s time to fire someone, don’t ponder or postpone your decision. Just recognize your mistake and fix it.

And don’t waste your time second-guessing yourself. I’ve spoken to thousands of leaders across the country, and I’ve asked them if they ever fired anyone. All their hands go up. When I ask them if they ever regretted firing someone, all their hands come down. In fact, their only regret is the fact that they didn’t fire the person earlier.

4. Failing to celebrate small victories.

As consultant Lou Briganti mentions, “Effective leaders realize that excellent work is rarely done without a passion for work, and passion cannot long survive without the simple but often overlooked feeling of joy.”

To keep that passion and joy going in the workplace, effective leaders must look for things their people are doing right and commend them. And don’t just look for the big victories when everything goes well. Look for the small victories that happen along the way to reaching your big goals. You can even … and indeed you should … look for the silver linings in failed projects.

To find those small victories in your successful and not-so successful work, ask yourself or ask your people, “What went right? What happened that we could call a victory?” Effective leaders find creative, powerful, and often inexpensive ways to celebrate a variety of things at work … with their people.

Blogger John Milne writes, “Acknowledge your achievers publicly and privately. Grow a strong culture of celebrating, rewarding, and honoring achievement. Your people want to speak of their pride in their workplace.”

5. Getting big headed about your title.

As Van Hooser warns, “When individuals are placed into positions of leadership and responsibility, one of two things normally happen. They either grow or they swell.”

And growth is good and normal. That’s why most people register for my “Journey to the Extraordinary” program … which will be coming to Denver on June 21-22, 2012. As Registered Nurse Terry Truex from the Orthopedic Institute said, “Now I’ve got a systematic approach for identifying problems and actually solving them. Your ‘Journey’ framework literally ensured my success.”

So yes, growth is good, but swelling is the first step before something bursts and rots. You can’t do that and be an effective leader at the same time.

Remember this key point: Leaders are both confident and modest. Being a leader is not about making yourself more powerful. It is about making the people around you more powerful.

6. Being overly rigid.

As you well know, not everyone thinks, acts, reacts, or works in the same way. People are different, and those folks working on their leadership skills make a special effort to understand the differences in their followers. They make allowances for those differences rather than have everything done “MY way.”

If you have an overly-rigid tendency, I recommend Briganti’s procedure. He talks about separating Big T from Little t truth statements. In other words, it’s very difficult and very rare that you can make absolute statements because we are all afflicted by “an angularity of vision.” We can only see one side of a wedge, sphere, or situation at a time. Instead of arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong on many issues, try saying instead, “From where I stand, this is what I see. What are you seeing?” This opens up dialogue rather than debate.

As I always tell my audiences, it doesn’t matter what your job title is. You’re always leading or influencing somebody. And if you’re going to be an effective leader, you must adopt the leadership skills that work. BUT you must also avoid the leadership behaviors that don’t work … which include the ones listed above.

Action:  If you were to ask the people you lead which of the six behaviors listed above that you exhibit, what would they say?