Why And How Good Leaders Can Go Astray

May 27, 2016 1 Min Read
Leader going bananas!


Decay starts when you lose touch with reality

The best boss I ever had was when I held a part-time job as a student—his attitude completely reshaped my idea of what made a good leader. He would carry out the same tough, grubby, menial tasks that were asked of his team, and while I appreciated his work ethic, I couldn’t understand why he worked alongside us on top of seeing to his managerial duties. So I asked him.

this was his reply: “Well, I can hardly ask you guys to do anything I wouldn’t do myself and besides, how can I get to know the team and their concerns if I don’t spend time on the floor living the same experiences?”

From that point, I realised that great leaders are those who lead from the front; they roll up their sleeves and they take the time to get a handle on what’s happening “on the floor”.

This achieves two things:
> a leader quickly builds respect, and
> he avoids the risk of losing touch with how things really are within the team and the organisation.
When well-intentioned leaders fail in their vision, it seldom has to do with intelligence, competence, or their determination to succeed. Instead, they fail because they lose touch, which can lead to feelings of invulnerability and a sense of inevitable success.

The rise and fall of a leader

During the Scottish independence referendum campaign in 2014, I interviewed the-then First Minister Alex Salmond—a man no one would describe as lacking ambition or determination.

A former economist in the bank and oil industries, Salmond’s sharp mind served him well as he climbed the political ladder, cementing his place in history as one of the United Kingdom’s (UK) finest politicians, having helped his Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) from the fringes to establishing a majority government in Scotland.

In my observation of Salmond throughout the two-year campaign, what took me by surprise wasn’t his ebullient self-assurance, but the number of people around him who seemed to fawn over him as though he were a rock star.

Any difficult questions aimed at him or his ministers—for example, on currency, defence, and pensions —were waved away with generic assurances that there were plans in place and everything would be fine.

Salmond appeared to have lost touch with reality. His environment and the people around him had him convinced there was no way the “Yes” vote would lose, and this affected his approach to the campaign. On Sept 18, Scotland voted to remain part of the UK by a result of 55%–45% a close margin, but a heavy loss nevertheless for the SNP.

Salmond had hailed the “Yes” campaign as a positive one, yet there remained the sense that this positivity resulted in significant questions being glossed over, while major concerns were shunned with an attitude that everything would turn out well in the end.

Ponder this

This is exactly why well-intentioned leaders fail. While it’s important to remain positive and focused on the vision, leaders set themselves up for a fall if they fail to take a hard and honest look at the issues that need to be addressed.

No doubt it’s wonderful to be surrounded by positive people, but any leader would do well to keep in mind that it can be much more valuable to have people around them who ask tough questions, rather than agreeing with every whim and suggestion.

Leaders can only be sure of lasting success if they keep company with those who are willing to be upfront and challenging. Otherwise, they might find themselves floundering in the wind without direction.

Leaders can only be sure of lasting success if they keep company with those who are willing to be upfront and challenging. Otherwise, they might find themselves floundering in the wind without direction.


4 reasons how good leaders lose their way

1. They lose sight of what’s going on

Leaders are in a privileged position, which often means that they become far removed from what’s happening on the ground.

Add to that the likelihood of being surrounded by “yes” men well-versed in stroking egos, and it becomes obvious why even the most well-intended leader can end up encountering considerable failures.

2. They become arrogant

Losing sight of realistic aims and objectives, as well as the well-being of their team, can lead to arrogance on the part of a leader who is surrounded by people who constantly offer praise and perhaps embellishing reports on performance.

Leaders who are susceptible to sycophantic praise are bound to develop excessive confidence in their own ability, which inevitably will serve to the detriment of the organisation’s vision.

3. Groupthink sets in

Most people want to please the boss. Some are sincere in this, while others use it as a manipulative tool, and some don’t want to rock the boat for the sake of an easy life.

If you’ve ever been to a meeting where everyone agrees with everything the boss says, that’s an example of groupthink.

Another is in the shared belief that the reality of the organisation’s performance is much better than it actually is. Leaders are at a great disadvantage when groupthink sets in, as few people are willing to express valid concerns that might serve to benefit the organisation if they are properly addressed.

4. There’s a lack of honest self-reflection

There’s an idea that self-reflection is the perfect way to gain insights, which is true only if the person doing the reflecting is able to take a realistic look at themselves.

“Why do I really want to lead? What am I doing well? In which areas could I improve? What’s most important to me?”

If these questions are answered in lofty ideals rather than with honesty, such self-reflection will simply bolster already misguided beliefs.

Sandy is always impressed by great leaders who can navigate the tricky path to success. Alexander the Great is his favourite example, and he encourages a look into Alexander’s life for excellent insights into effective leadership. To connect with Sandy you can follow him on Twitter at @RealSClarke. For more Career Advice articles, click here.

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Tags: Executing Leadership

Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of www.leaderonomics.com, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.

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