Poor leadership is often cited as the primary reason that change or delivery of any sort fails, but it begs the question - what do we mean by ‘poor leadership’? Sue Tan, CEO, Miragroup, explains what her view of poor leadership is and also the behaviour of failure.

That’s a simple question with a complex and multi dimensional answer because true leadership is demonstrated by our behaviours and not by our job title.

It’s easy to describe the attributes of a leader but not so easy to be one. To be a good leader we must understand ourselves well and, at times, fight with our natural temperament and be someone we are not or at least not quite yet.

Barrier to leadership

In my experience the biggest barrier to leadership is a person’s ego.

For some people the need to prove they are the ‘boss’, that they are in control, they get to ‘call the shots’, that they have control of you is far more important than achieving a successful outcome.

If your management team is full of this profile then your organisation is in for a world of pain as it will repeatedly fail to achieve successful outcomes.

Well, actually it does achieve successful outcomes, but the definition of success is warped by the people protecting their ego and not the organisation they work for!

American dream

The ‘American dream’ model is where everyone pulls together as a team to deliver success, each supporting the other throughout the hard process of making something succeed.

Okay, they write a lot of books about teamwork and perhaps they don’t really achieve it but the principle remains true. But what is underneath the words ‘teamwork’?

It means that everyone is willing to subjugate their ego and personal needs for the greater good. The fantasy vision being that, from the ‘top of the shop’ and down everyone puts aside their job titles, rolls up their sleeves and gets the job done.
It’s a beautiful vision and, if it really worked that way, it would be hard to ever fail at anything.

Of course, in order for that to truly happen, everyone would have to be stunningly self aware, to put aside their ego, truly respect the people working with them and focus on nothing but the endgame.

In the real world the only time we see the American dream is when there is a ‘burning platform’. In other words, we only band together as equals when we believe we will all die a horrible death or at least lose our jobs or bonuses!

Rome is burning

But we are on a ‘burning platform’. The Western economy has been in meltdown for 10 years or more. Our governments finally called it a recession in 2009, but most of us knew we were living on economic quicksand long before the admission of recession.

It was kind of obvious - a few very expensive wars, overheating property prices, outlandish loans offered by banks, low interest rates, dwindling tax receipts, high public outgoings, decreased financial regulatory controls - it’s not like we didn’t know and where else could it lead?

So, here we stand, our feet on fire and everyone is screaming, ‘We need to do more for less’. And they are right, we do need to do more for less, but are we?

Listen to the ‘doers’

To answer that question we have to listen to the ‘doers’ - The people who are responsible for making changes to their organisations so they can do more for less. And yes, we really should listen to them. They are on the front line of getting us where we need to be so we can stop burning.

So let’s listen to what they are saying:

  • We do not have culture of saying ‘no’ to our stakeholders.
  • Saying ‘no’ is a career limiting move.
  • My stakeholders are not interested in the detail.
  • My steering group make expedient decisions without understanding the real problems.
  • We have a ‘good news culture’, which means we never get to tell the truth.
  • Our organisation is highly political.
  • This is a ‘mates club’ and if you are not in the club then no one will listen.
  • Our organisation ‘blames and punishes’ failure unfairly.

I paraphrase a little, but these are virtually quotes from many people working for many different types and size of organisation. And yes, how embarrassing for the organisations these people represent.

In summary they are saying: ‘My organisation has terrible leadership skills!’

Leadership ego

Basically the leadership ego is leading rather than the desire to achieve a successful outcome. The leaders are focused on serving their ego needs and not on the real outcome that is needed for the organisation to get where it needs to be.

For as long as this remains true we can expect ongoing failure and we certainly will never achieve ‘doing more for less’, at best we will achieve ‘doing less for less’.

But failure is no longer an option so we need to improve our leadership and we need to do it fast. In my experience sending our decision makers on ‘leadership training’ does not produce a better leader.

Those training workshops are money making ventures and it is not in the interest of their business to challenge a person’s ego and take them down a peg or two!

No, this is a self-learning exercise. Our leaders need to challenge themselves and do better. And the doers need to get better at managing their ego-needy managers.

Are you an ego leader?

Here’s a fun exercise that you can complete for yourself or on behalf of others to self assess, just a little, what kind of leader you or they are:

Are you an ego leader survey

What now?

Well, if you are a leader and you did not rate too well then you might want to lift your game. Your job, your children’s jobs and your community are relying on you to do better.

If you work in an organisation with bad leadership then you need to understand what you are dealing with. A person with a big ego is actually a person with a very weak ego they need to protect.

In other words, use their ego needs to manage their behaviour. The last thing that person wants is to be viewed poorly by everyone else so you need to learn to manipulate that ego until they grow up - if they ever do.

It is well within our remit to get better at this. We are not in a hopeless place. You, the leader, need to know yourself and get better at managing your weaknesses. You, the doer, need to know your management better and get better at managing them.

This is not really a barrier to success. It’s only a barrier if we let it become one!