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Two Leadership Traps: How To Get Out Of Them and How To Avoid Them (Part 1)


You've heard of the Peter Principle: "People are promoted to their level of ultimate incompetence". But what the Peter Principle doesn't tell you is the nature of the incompetence. For the most part, it's leadership incompetence.

A human resources director told me, "Brent, we hire people for their skills and knowledge, but we fire them or fail to promote them or promote them for their leadership abilities -- or lack thereof."

In other words, throughout their careers, people are promoted to take charge of bigger and bigger groups -- until they take over a group that's too big for their leadership abilities.

One main reason they come up short in abilities is they are constantly and unconsciously falling into two leadership traps.

I'll describe the traps, how to get out of them, and how not to get into them in the first place.

The traps can be particularly deadly because they are in many cases self-set -- and even self-triggered. What's worse: the vast majority of leaders who get into them don't have a clue they're caught. It's one thing to be in a trap and know you're in it: You try to get out. But it's a problem of another magnitude to be in a trap and not know you're in it. In that case, you'll stay there.

THE FIRST TRAP: "I need ..."

A marketing leader in a major global company was stumbling. His team was failing to achieve the targeted results. He told me, "The good news is they do what I tell them. The bad news is they do what I tell them -- ONLY what I tell them. Other than firing the worst of the bunch or transferring others out of the team, I can't figure out what to do. And if I don't do it soon, I'll be the one fired or transferred!"

I asked if I could sit in on a team meeting to scope out the situation. "Be my guest," he said. "But I don't see what good it'll do. The problem isn't in the meetings. Everybody agrees what needs to get done when they're in the meetings. The problem is the results after the meetings."

The meeting had been going only for only a couple of minutes when I saw what was wrong. Afterwards, alone in his office, I told him: "They're not the problem. YOU'RE the problem. You've fallen into two leadership traps."

He looked at me incredulously. "What traps?"

I explained that leaders often fall into traps that prevent them from getting the full measure of results they're capable of. And the deadliest traps are often the ones of their own making.

The first trap is the "I need . . . " trap.

Leaders fall into this trap when they say, "I need you to hit the marketing targets, I need you to get more productive, I need you to (fill in the blank)". I NEED ... I NEED ... I NEED ....

Why is this a trap? The answer: the Leader's Fallacy. The Leader's Fallacy is the mistaken belief by leaders that their own needs are automatically reciprocated by the needs of the people they lead. It's a fallacy because automatic reciprocity doesn't exist. But so many leaders go blithely along driven by the Fallacy and so fall into the "I need . . . " trap.

For instance, the marketing leader thought he was motivating people to get great results. However, during the meeting, he was constantly repeating, "I need ... ". So, in reality, he was ordering people to get average results. Of course, leaders don't order people to get average results. But average results are usually the outcome of order leadership.

The order is the lowest form of motivation. The order leader's focus of my-way-or-the-highway can't get great results from people on a consistent basis simply because people usually can't be ordered to undertake extraordinary endeavors. They must choose to do so. When he said, "The bad news is they ONLY do what I tell them.", he was unknowingly afflicting them. They were simply responding to an order then going into a kind of suspended animation (masked by busy work) until the next order came along.

In Part 2, I'll describe how to get out of this trap.

2005 The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

PERMISSION TO REPUBLISH: This article may be republished in newsletters and on web sites provided attribution is provided to the author, and it appears with the included copyright, resource box and live web site link. Email notice of intent to publish is appreciated but not required: mail to: brent@actionleadership.com

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. - and for more than 20 years has been helping leaders of top companies worldwide get audacious results. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get a free white paper: "49 Ways To Turn Action Into Results," at http://www.actionleadership.com

Leadership is best defined by the quality of your thoughts, decisions and actions. It is also underpinned by the quality of the tools you use in your role. Be seen to bring true leadership to your organization and act with the authority that it brings to you.

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