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A Failure of Leadership

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What do you need to have at work to be fully engaged?

What do you need to have at work to be fully engaged?
A Failure of Leadership

Leaders set the context for recognizing, developing, and leveraging everyday greatness that exists within any organization.  Leaders must ensure that the environment is one that encourages everyone to work to the best of their abilities. That process starts with building relationships, a primary function of those serving in a leadership role. Life is about relationships, and success in the workplace is intricately tied to the personal connections that are built and maintained. Self-help author Brian Tracy said, “The glue that holds all relationships together—including the relationship between the leader and the led—is trust, and trust is based on integrity.”  Establishing trust is the most basic requirement of any relationship. Without it, all else falters.


I was reminded of this caveat as I observed a new leader forge ahead in a division of high achievers. His mistakes were many, and his blindness to his inability to engage others and to build trust was astounding; needless to say, the results were devastating.


The classic mistakes that many new leaders make were compounded as I observed his style over the first 90 days—he discounted everything, and I mean everything, his colleagues had developed and achieved through years of hard effort. There was a constant, demeaning stream of negative comments about how the work of the division was being conducted. If the practices and processes were not being done in a way he had done them in the past, they were wrong. There was no opportunity for others to offer insight into why the various tools and methods were developed and how they supported the organization’s objectives. He was acutely unaware of the consequences of many of his decisions. There was only a declaration that everything was going to change—to his way of doing things.


Changes began taking place in a vacuum. There was no communication, which resulted in a constant state of anxiety, nervous tension, and rumors. Those we spoke with were so unsettled they could not focus on their work, and were having clear-cut symptoms of profound stress.


Collaboration with his colleagues to engage them in making the changes never happened. Dictates were the order of the day. People who had labored long hours because of their commitment to the business began leaving at 5:00 P.M. sharp. Many made a habit of “working from home” to avoid interaction with this leader. Office potluck lunches, once an occasion for camaraderie, ceased to exist as people preferred to “lay low.”


Perhaps this leader’s most devastating behavior was the pitting of staff against staff as a tactic, in his mind at least, that would create loyalty to his leadership. Confidential information, even information on who he was thinking of firing, was shared with a selected few who became his “go-to” people. A strategic plan was developed without input and presented to the team as a final product with no opportunity for reaction or feedback.


By the fifth month of his leadership, six of his best performers had resigned and those remaining were actively searching for a way to get out. It is not surprising that this division did a quick downward spiral and has little chance of surviving.


This leader had a lot of great ideas that could have had a tremendous positive impact on the organization. This is a story of a failure of leadership. I see it all too often as I work with organizations across the country.

What would have been a better approach for this leader?  If, instead, this leader had focused on developing the trust and respect of his colleagues the story would have been much different.  It required nothing more than the basics of effective leadership.


  1. Servant Leadership Mindset.  Understanding the concept that “to lead, you must serve” is central to promoting an environment that captures the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of the workforce.  The very essence of this philosophy is that the individual is a servant first, who has made a decision to lead as a way to serve others, not to enhance his own circumstances or increase their power.  Servant leadership implies that leaders have faith in their people, believing that everyone has the capability for greatness and that they can be trusted to do great things.  How different the scenario above would have been if this new leader had introduced himself with the phrase, “How may I serve you?”
  2. Visibility, Accessibility and Approachability.  The best way for a new leader to develop relationships is to have a high level of visibility and interaction with employees.  It sends a message that leadership encourages staff to make suggestions and offer opinions which creates a stronger sense of ownership.  This practice of genchi genbutsu, translated as “go and see” directs leadership to go to the source to find the facts to make the right decisions, build consensus and achieve goals.
  3. Communication That Connects and Inspires.  A crucial challenge of leadership is communicating in a way that connects, inspires and supports those they lead.  Nothing can derail a new leader more quickly than insufficient and ineffective communication.  The most impactful communication goes beyond information sharing to interactive exchanges between leader and employee that clarifies the direction of the organization, sets expectations, and reviews progress.  A few simple questions posed to his staff by the new leader would have created a shared platform for moving forward.
  4. Leading by Example.  Nothing develops or destroys trust in leadership more quickly than the observable behaviors of leadership.  Role-modeling the organizational values and expected behaviors are critical to creating an environment of consistency.  It is simple:  people do what they see being done.  Leaders must be aware that they are “on stage” at all times and that others are taking their cues from the behaviors they observe.  A leader who arrives for meetings late is giving permission for others to be late.  A leader who parks in the customer-allocated space sends a message that it’s okay to park there, even if the personnel manual notes otherwise.

These behaviors, consistently followed, will go a long way to position a leader as a trusted and respected colleague by those he has the opportunity and privilege to lead.


Until next time, find and celebrate the greatness in your life!