How Organisations set Leaders up for Failure

The first job I ever had was working as a ‘temp’ for the Royal Mail for £5/hour. It was simple administrative work stuffing envelopes and basically doing whatever was required to support a small call centre in Kent. I didn’t learn much and the role has probably been automated by now.

You wouldn’t fly with an untrained pilot – so why would you want to be led by an untrained leader? Why is it culturally acceptable to train people for some roles yet others are just left to get on with it?

The first job that really taught me something was as a labourer on a building site during my University summer holidays. We were building an indoor swimming pool for a wealthy ex-banker but I suspect the real beneficiaries were his grand-children!

I had always thought that I’d worked hard but there is a big difference between studying for your A-Levels and digging a 1m cubed hole in the ground for a swimming pool pump system. This was back-breaking physical work that I hadn’t really experienced before.

Making Cement:

On my first day, I was shown how to make cement. I still remember the challenge of balancing the amount of water you had to add which varied according to the daily temperature. If it’s too wet, the cement is too liquid and it squishes out as the brick-layers place the bricks. If it’s too dry, it turns to a paste and can’t be moulded into smooth lines.

There was a thin balance that I had to get right or the ‘posh kid got a ton of grief for slowing down the pace of the brick-layers’. I was trained how to make cement on day one and then refined my ability with some fairly punchy feedback when I got it wrong was frequently.

The point I am making here is that I was trained to do the job and my performance was improved through the use of feedback by the customer (the user of my products). 

The Corporate World:

It has been five years since I left the Corps. In that time, I have worked in the Nuclear Industry, been a Consultant and started my own business.

When I reflect on leadership in the corporate world, there is one mindset shift that I think needs to happen before any type of leadership training will benefit the organisation.

The shift is this:

  • The primary responsibility of a leader or manager is to drive performance through their people.
  • Their secondary responsibility is to ‘do work’.
  • Leading people is the job. It is not ‘in addition to the job.’

There are many leaders in the corporate world who believe that their primary responsibility is ‘to do work’ and their secondary responsibility is to lead. This creates all sorts of problems.

You can always tell someone’s priorities based on what they spend their time on. If they spend time giving feedback, coaching and improving the performance of their people, chances are their people will perform and as a consequence, their teams will do well.

But organisation’s rarely set leaders up to be successful in this way.

Poor Leadership Selection

People are usually promoted because they are good at doing the job. For example, in a sales team, it is usually the best salesman that gets promoted.

The problem with this is that the skills required to be a successful salesman are often completely different to the ones required to lead a team.

In the Marines, if we promoted our best field-soldiers, all the snipers would be in charge. But the skills required to lead and co-ordinate people and resources are completely different. It is the same in the corporate world.

Yes, people need to be functionally competent. They need to know enough about the jobs of the people that they are leading but it is not essential for them to be the best – and selecting them based on this criteria sets them up to ‘do more’ rather than lead.

The moment you’ve been promoted to a leadership position, you now have a team to lead and that requires a change of priorities.

In the same way that I was taught how to make cement, being taught how to lead is crucial in setting a leader up for success. It’s why all Leaders in the Royal Marines go to Lympstone to be trained to lead.

How can you expect people to lead people effectively if they’ve never been taught how to do it?

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The “Leaders are Born” Myth

For some reason, we seem to believe that it is important to train people to become functionally competent. From the labourer on the building site to the junior member of a sales team, people are taught how to do the job to set them up for success.

But this logic isn’t carried on when people are promoted into leadership positions.

Engagement – Accountability – Poor Performance are all issues that affect companies.

These are the symptoms of poor or non-existent leadership training.

But it’s not the fault of the leaders.

The majority of them receive no training. They’re just expected to work it out, making mistakes along the way.

Often their default setting is to revert to an authoritarian style, not because it is the best one but usually because it is how leaders behave in their organisation.

Toxic Leaders

Toxic leadership is something that I have written about extensively. Sadly, they’re the articles that drive some of the highest levels of engagement with people telling me that I’ve basically described their organisation’s leadership culture.

This isn’t surprising. Toxic leaders get things done. But they do it through force and intimidation. This is rarely the best way but it does work – in the short-term.

However, over the long-term, toxic leaders destroy organisations like cancerous cells destroying an organism from within.

They create toxic cultures and breed more toxic leaders. The cycle repeats itself as more of them get promoted into positions of authority and their followers do well.

This starts to become a problem when the strong performers start to leave. They have options so they’re the first to get head-hunted out.

The toxic leaders will justify this saying that ‘they couldn’t keep up’ but it’s bullsh*t. The employees hated being there and they’d had enough.

Rarely will they say this in an exit interview because why would they? The decisions been made – why bother having a difficult conversation?

Toxic leaders get things done through fear and intimidation – like the slave-drivers who built the pyramids – they’re often effective but only in a climate where people feel they have no other option but to comply.

Great leaders build strong relationships that deliver performance over the long-term. They get better results through coaching, encouragement and aligning personal goals with organisational goals. They create great cultures where people are willing – not forced – to give ‘blood sweat and tears’ to make things happen. In turn, they attract talented people because their employees tell them how great it is to work there.

Great leaders are not born – that’s a myth.

They are developed through a combination of training, coaching and mentoring.

They must be selected because first and foremost they genuinely care about other people and their success. They must also have humility – the ability to be taught and to learn from their mistakes putting their hands up and admitting it when they get it wrong.

Developing Great Leaders

It’s hard to develop great leaders without defining what great leadership looks like. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the word leadership means so much that it actually means nothing. The lack of clarity around the word makes it difficult to develop people because the end-state or the skills you’re developing are unclear.

How can you build better leaders if you don’t have a definition of what good leadership looks like? 

I don’t have the answer to this question because it differs between organisations and cultures. But I am convinced that an organisational definition for leadership is dependent upon two things – the values of your organisation and a set of principles that the leadership team will never compromise on.

I have been doing some work on the Leadership PrinciplesIt’s a work in progress designed to help people develop a definition that they can implement themselves. I am in the process of trying to stress-test the model and am looking for feedback.

What have I missed out? What is surplus to requirements? What doesn’t make sense?

Please feel free to share this article and give me some feedback. Like the brick-layers on the building site, I can’t improve without it so I’m grateful for your thoughts.

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