Real-life Leaders, Their Shortcomings, and How They Overcame Them
"A business owner has to realize that, as the saying goes, 'A skunk stinks from the head down,' and a business does too," writes Bill McBean in his book The Facts of Business Life. That’s why, McBean posits, behind every great leader is a successful business.
But just because you’re sitting in the leader’s chair doesn’t mean you excel at managing and motivating a team. Plenty of highly-placed executives lack essential people skills, or worse, rule with a bully’s iron fist -- it’s their way or the highway, a la TV bosses Donald Trump and Gordon Ramsay.
In real life, staff won’t rally around a reviled leader. A survey by DDI and Badbossology found that nearly half left within six months and 10% said they would quit immediately. Among those who stuck around, nearly one-third of all employees spend at least 20 hours a month complaining about the boss, resulting in hours of lost productivity.
While the effects of bad management range from low morale to plummeting profits, the good news is leaders can change. According to data compiled by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, senior executives who were judged lacking in effective leadership skills turned their personal ships around to become better bosses in two years or less.
If you suspect your team’s latest four letter word is "boss," read on to see if you fit a particular profile. Then keep in mind the wisdom of writer and consultant Peter Drucker words: "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things," and make a concerted effort to change.
Here are some examples of poor leadership and some real-life cases of leaders turning things around in a big way.
Two-time Super Bowl champ and head coach of the New York Giants Tom Coughlin used to be as unbending as a steel girder. Rules for discipline were rigidly enforced. He even fined players who weren’t in their seats to start team meetings on time.
Fortunately, Coughlin turned his weakness into an advantage. With unyielding persistence, Coughlin transformed the relationship with his players by treating them like people with real lives beyond the football field. To get the team to talk to the coaching staff, he started a players' council.
You don’t have to be everyone’s buddy to get them to open up and feel like their input is valued. Simply stay mum the next time you feel yourself pushing your own answers and solutions. You can still maintain control by limiting the amount of time the floor is open to team members’ suggestions. You may discover this strategy encourages staff to buy in to your projects more frequently because there’s a true exchange of ideas.
When Leo Apotheker was installed to replace ousted Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd, he seemed to take the helm with a huge chip (not a silicon one, either) on his shoulder. A string of decisions he deemed would set the company back on track did the opposite. HP lost nearly $40 billion in value during his 11-months in the corner office.
Like the general leading troops into battle, Apotheker behaved as if his team, staff and customers should simply fall in line behind him when he yelled “charge.” Not only does that not inspire confidence, it demonstrates a lack of patience -- a key leadership skill.
Forget full steam ahead. Sometimes, even in crisis mode, charging forward can set a company back. Instead, take the time to learn more about the customers’ needs and ask staff to offer solutions. Have you checked your company’s social media stream? Asked your customer service reps what the most common complaints are? An organization’s success depends on alignment. Listening can start everyone off on the right foot to working on a common goal.
Steve Jobs doesn’t often make the list of unsuccessful leaders, but he was well known for getting his hands into the minutiae at Apple from the design of the corporate shuttle bus to the food in the company’s cafeteria. This level of involvement worked brilliantly at Apple for many years, but at its worst, it takes up too much time and leaves the staff unmotivated and unable to make decisions.
Jobs countered his hands-on leadership by ensuring that every employee understood their personal responsibilities. In trademark Apple fashion, it was simple and clear. The "DRI," or directly responsible individual would be noted next to the action items on meeting agendas. In this way, the boss can keep tabs on everyone, but there’s no mistaking who needs to do what.
It was mutiny when staff reporting to Jeff Kindler, star CEO of Pfizer, had enough of his routine tongue lashings that reportedly had some senior executives in tears. When the board of the world's largest pharmaceutical company investigated, they discovered Kindler’s bad behavior and pushed for his resignation.
Tales of Kindler’s power plays read like a blockbuster drama. Unfortunately, histrionics and second guessing have never motivated any staff, small or large. A better approach would be to leverage sterling career achievements and play coach to help develop employees’ performance. One-on-one sessions can encourage staff to connect their career goals to those of the company. Then everyone wins.
Groupon’s Andrew Mason was ousted earlier this year after the daily deals company continued its downward spiral. As founder, Mason led Groupon from startup to IPO, but things started to fall apart as the nimble enterprise grew into a bloated entity with 11,000 employees in 48 countries, and acquired 11 companies and launched 11 new products in the last year.
Mason was wise enough to acknowledge the risk of moving too fast, and said he regretted "moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what's best for our customers." He should have paced himself.
Entrepreneurial gurus often proclaim that building a business is more like a marathon than a sprint. Setting standards for rapid growth not only leaves staff breathless, but doesn’t give good ideas breathing room to grow. Reset your goals for more achievable one year, three year and five year benchmarks. And buy a sturdy pair of shoes so you can pace the halls and check in with how everyone is holding up.