Some of them seem clear because they talk tough and stick to dogma. At first blush, it makes them appear as if they are strong leaders with confidence. Once you start asking “Why?” they stumble, mumble, attack, defend and spout out more clichés. They don’t know why. You can’t know why unless you have a center.
I’ve worked for and coached several centerless business leaders and the experience is consistently stressful. Priorities change daily, often for no reason at all. They filter everything they hear through personal biases and agendas. They tend to classify people as either good people and bad people. The good people are those who agree, who do what they’re told, who don’t ask questions and above all, who avoid giving the leader any feedback that might expose the truth that they have no center. The bad people are the people dumb enough to give the leader honest feedback or dare to disagree. It follows that these leaders create teams of fearful people who speculate about which members are in or out, an activity that consumes most of their energy and damages team trust.
The worst was a CEO who was terrified of the Board of Directors primarily because the little voiceinside his head told him he was over his head. To quiet that voice, he devoted all of his energies to giving the Board exactly what they wanted. He bent over backwards to please them. If the Board wanted to cut costs, he cut costs. If the Board didn’t like one of his direct reports he got rid of the person. He was probably hired because the Board sensed that he would serve them obediently, do what he was told and tell them what they wanted to hear: a perfect conspiracy.
All of us who had the misfortune to report to this leader experienced stress, confusion and profound job dissatisfaction. He would call at unexpected intervals and ask out-of-the-blue questions without background or context in a very demanding tone. “Why are we spending so much on X?” for example. Because most of the team members were afraid to ask why he was asking the question, they responded with garbled answers contaminated with fear and anxiety. When they tried to expand on the answer with a more thoughtful response, he would cut them off and run with the assumption he had already made before he placed the call. He never wanted to hear about the past, about history or about the numerous variables that led to a certain outcome. He was a highly selective listener who filtered out anything that did not have to do with achieving his personal agenda.
He also had the annoying habit of asking for feedback at the end of every one-on-one, probably a tactic he picked up in management training to make him appear as if he were really interested in open, honest communication. I was dumb enough to give him honest feedback once. The next week, he reorganized my group and took an entire department away from me. I made two decisions: one, to never give the guy feedback or tell him anything unpleasant; and two, to develop a crash program designed to get me the hell out of that company.
Eventually, a trickle of turnover turned into a flood. The Board pretended to be shocked that he was such a horrible, alienating leader and got rid of him. Then they hired a replacement who also had no center, but was better at disguising the emptiness inside.
Many centerless leaders look good, dress right and have a can-do attitude that Americans fall in love with. When you pierce the facade, you find that the makers of this chocolate truffle forgot the filling.
When I look at leaders today, I’m amazed at how many of them are empty chocolate truffles. They talk a good game and may even appear to be successful for a while. Eventually, the truth catches up with their self-promotion techniques and they become fallen idols.
How do we avoid surrendering our organizations to these empty suits? Focus on hiring for competencies over impressive credentials or powerful connections. Design a tough interview process that requires candidates to interview with people at all levels of the organization so you can truly see if this leader can connect with people and communicate an engaging vision. Implement honest skip-level meetings where people can feel free to communicate frustration with a leader without putting their own jobs at risk and where leaders translate that feedback into actions designed to improve the leader’s effectiveness, if possible. Require every leader in the organization to attend leadership training every year and choose a course that focuses more on developing self-and-other awareness than stroking egos. Make the art of leadership a constant point of discussion and debate in the organization, so that leaders realize that the practice of leading people to achieve their potential is as important as the financial statement. Effective leaders understand that goals are achieved through cooperative effort, and that a company is more likely to make money when everyone is working in unison towards common goals.
After all, what good is it to make money if no one’s having a good time doing it? It’s more than possible to do both with leaders who have confidence in themselves and in the people they lead.