By Mike Hoban
Maybe you’ve noticed too - it seems that not a week goes by without a story on the front page or in the business section about a prominent and respected leader who has flamed out, derailed, driven his own bus off the cliff. That is, a smart, capable and seasoned executive in the private or public sector does or says something which puts an end to his/her career and embarrasses the organization. Their choice “derails” what had been theretofore a successful and high profile career.
These situations are not usually about competence. Sure, executives get shown the door all of the time for failure to perform, whether that is rooted in a lack of the right skill sets or a job/role mismatch or just plain bad timing. This is something different. This is more about who they are rather than about what they know or what they can do.
The same personality characteristics and talents which work together to make us effective can also, under certain circumstances (like intense pressure) or when used in excess, lead to our downfall. For example, candor or plain talk can be a personal strength in our business organizations or in government, which seem to thrive on buzzspeak and purposeful ambiguity. But when dialed up too high, extreme candor can become unfiltered disrespect (sometimes public). I think we’ve seen those headlines recently. Similarly, self-confidence, unquestionably a good thing, when taken to an extreme can become arrogance, which is also a vessel for that extreme candor and a condition that can color judgment.
We humans are complicated creatures and we are more like marble cakes than layer cakes and our motivations, talents, traits and behaviors swirl within us, creating the potential of misusing our strengths in ways that work against us. A healthy attention to detail (a strength) when dialed up too much can hijack a leader’s focus and lead to micromanagement and an emphasis on the tactical instead of the strategic.
Other examples of the overuse of strengths? Decisiveness (a good thing) can become impulsiveness (not such a good thing). Passion can become volatility. Caution and prudence can become risk aversion. Being a team player can morph into approval dependence.
The best leaders are those who know themselves very well and understand their internal “wiring,” both their strengths and their vulnerabilities. Self-knowledge is aided by widely available personality inventories and 360°s and an openness to feedback. And if a situation arises in which one’s personality defaults might lead to an undesirable outcome, the self-aware will recognize that and employ a behavioral workaround to try to achieve the desirable outcome.
It’s not about trying to change who you are, it’s about choosing wisely what to do about who you are. And making those good choices can help leaders be successful. It’s not as easy as developing a readily learnable skill, such as a problem solving methodology or public speaking, but through self-monitoring and being intentional about our actions, self-aware leaders can mitigate or avoid altogether their potential derailers. That’s good for them and obviously good for their organizations. Hence, the best practice is for organizations to ensure they have an insightful read on their leaders and up-and-coming leaders, so coaching, development, assignments and roles are planned to at least take into account their personal “wiring.”
Today - yes, this very day - as you read this blog there will be leaders in organizations who are taking actions that will derail their efforts and their careers, perhaps because of the unintended misuse of the very things that got them where they are. Make sure you know thyself and use that insight to choose wisely.