Peak Performance Strategies

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Why Do Leaders Fail?

Succeed by Design

The search for the ultimate “success recipe” is offset by the effort to explain why companies fail. In working leaders of successful companies, and occasionally with people “making a comeback” I am struck by the fact that as a person succeed by design, a person would fail by design. Both success and failure are processes with distinctive features; they are not single events, but are sequences that in hindsight showed characteristics which predict the outcome. No names are mentioned in this article, but are describing some of the processes that lead to leaders failing.

For the sake of clarity: who do I refer to when I refer to “leaders” in this article. The people whose careers contributed were all people who carried the challenge of “corporate responsibility”. It was they who set the direction and domain for achieving the business results of the corporation. Some of them were internal promotions, most were recruited “from the outside” of the business. All of them had a clear success record which made them the winning candidates for the job. They were undoubtedly, the “smart people”. Given their credentials, their experience and the people who believed they could be successful, what then happened?

Knowledge includes “consequence thinking”

A starting point to my line of thinking is accepting that companies cannot fail, it is the people who hold the different kinds of responsibilities that do. The following are presented as “events” but please read it as the name of a process, or as a sequence of “events”:

  • i. Lack of brutal reality testing. Both Jim Collins (“Good to Great”) and Larry Bossidy (“Confronting Reality) makes reference to leaders shying away from letting the facts speak. It is as if the people who fail run scared of the facts that they have to deal with. It is like a train missing the orange warning that the next light will be red, and therefore missing the opportunity to control and run slow in time.
  • ii. Changes not in time or far reaching enough. This point is really the consequence of the first, that if the facts are misinterpreted the likelihood is small of doing enough in time. Either the thinking is “it is not so bad” or “lets wait and see.” The trap in the latter thinking is not identifying how to recognize the point where waiting is over and action is required, and because it remains unspecified the cues and opportunities had been missed.
  • iii. "Over-emphasising tomorrow". This is a useful phrase by John Maxwell where a false optimism rules. Either tomorrow will not be as bad, or things will (even as strongly as “must”) come right. This flows from a conviction about the dynamics of the market, but frequently an over-simplified “map” of how the market “works”. The resulting “selective attention” to some of the variables leads to a low quality “balancing act” in the consideration of the drivers of the market. Over-emphasizing tomorrow also happen as the result of over-valuation of an existing success-recipe. Because the approach has worked before, or for other “hero’s” it is adequate to deal with tomorrow, is how the thinking goes. This is the “selective inattention” that leads to an inadequate contextual intelligence. (This is the type of thinking us as consultants sell, the typical “all you have to do/know/etc is…” We supply flawed advice with flawed consequences because our own paradigms about change or the people, who has to change, may be flawed1).
  • iv. Members of the top-team play games of "silence", or they have an over-investment in a particular solution and successfully influence the rest to stop asking questions.

Thought Viruses

The effect of the above 4 points and others like it is that the frame-of-reference applied to the information is inadequate. The leader and his team is starting of with a pre-determined frame with/within which the information is evaluated which means that the facts “cannot speak their true meaning” since this meaning is already pre-determined.

A second effect is that the questions asked about the information are “restrictive questions” not coming from a basis of exploration, but asking for confirmation.

Third effect is suckers choice: getting trapped in either/or thinking rather than dealing with the “apparent” polarities in the situation. Ideas are not mutually exclusive simply because we think it so. This “suckers choice” (from Kerry Patterson et al “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High”) or either/or thinking creates polarity in thinking which not only leads to restrictive questions, but also to restrictive consideration of options. In practical terms this means reduced “possibility thinking”: paying attention to “more of the same” rather than also considering possibilities which are exceptions to the rule.

Limiting Beliefs

For various reasons the leader becomes convinced that one or more of the following “truths” apply to them and/or their situation:

  • i.Helplessness: cannot initiate and maintain a change-change "happens". This thinking takes away the initiative and cancels out the useful thought that says “if it is to be it starts with me.”
  • ii.Hopelessness: “even if I did try, I would make no difference.”
  • iii.Worthlessness: not deserving (to be heard, to realise a dream, to make expectations come true).

These limiting beliefs inevitable lead to restrictive questions, or even worse, to a suckers choice...

The Coach

People don't automatically want to fail. The core question is “what is more important than the truth/success that leads to inadequate balancing acts or interfering with the required contextual intelligence?” If the answer is to avoid embarrassment or threat, then you get the defense routines which maintain the above. Here are 5 essential steps for the management coach:

a) recognize the symptoms of the defensive reasoning to which your client is party to or are condoning; specifically, allowing the untested inferences, i.e. not checking on premises or negative attributions made of other parties, etc.

b) explore with your client their stated and unstated thoughts and feelings that occur during an interaction and facilitate an awareness of their own untested inferences;

c) discuss with them the balance between advocacy and inquiry which they participate in or condone; if any restrictions on inquiry have them take a hard look at that and use some of the pointers in the article to point out the consequences. Encourage debate and open inquiry;

d) point out defensive reasoning as many times as it occurs; an awareness or even acknowledgement of this kind of behaviour is seldom enough reason to stop it. Facilitate authentic, highly important reasons for toughing-out the potential fear, embarrassment, or conviction which are leading to defensive thinking;

e) be a model of exposing yourself to debating your inferences as well as having a good balance between advocacy and inquiry.