Good Leaders Avoid These 5 Temptations

By Aliah D. Wright Oct 6, 2014
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LAS VEGAS—What makes a leader successful?

Best-selling author and consultant Patrick Lencioni closed the Society for Human Resource Management’s Emerging LEAD(HR) Conference by telling attendees what makes a leader unsuccessful, and encouraging HR professionals to take the risk of speaking candidly with their companies’ leaders to improve the overall health of their organizations.

“I don’t think most people are good leaders,” said Lencioni, author of the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002). “When we go into leadership for the wrong reasons and do the wrong things, the cost is very high.”

Using humorous anecdotes, Lencioni outlined the five temptations that leaders often succumb to:

  • Valuing Status over Results
“We need to be better leaders and not everyone is prepared to be,” he said, recalling how he once worked at a struggling software company where the CEO decided to enlarge his workspace by ripping out the wall between his office and a conference room.

“His office furniture, which he was having flown in from the east coast, [caused him] to rebuild his office to accommodate it,” Lencioni said.

And, “whenever the company failed to meet its quarterly numbers, he wouldn’t get upset”—he cared more about how he looked on TV discussing what was to blame for the failures rather than actually dealing with them, Lencioni said.

These instances are examples of “the worst temptation of a leader,” he said. When leaders value status over results, they are usually motivated by ego. “This is the hardest of all the temptations to confront. If you have a leader like this, it’s hard to know if they want feedback at all. But you have to have the courage to tell them, ‘I’m a little worried you might be motivated by the wrong thing.’”

Lencioni said HR professionals who desire to be leaders themselves have to be self-aware enough to recognize their shortcomings, and courageous enough to make the leaders in their company aware of their own shortcomings.

“You [have the conversation] with a sense of sacrifice for the good of the organization,” he said.

  • Valuing Popularity over Accountability
“Most leaders are wussies,” he said, who put a higher value on being popular among their direct reports rather than holding their employees accountable for their behaviors. He encouraged HR professionals not to avoid a leader’s performance issues but instead address the problems head-on—otherwise greater performance issues are inevitable. “If we love the people that work for us, then we have to hold them accountable. We have to [also] do that with the leaders we work with—even it threatens our popularity. You want people to trust you? Tell them the truth.”

  • Valuing Certainty over Clarity
“There are leaders … who don’t clarify what people should be held accountable for,” he said. “This happens a lot when the leaders like to be right. Clarity is so much better than certainty. A decision is better than no decision. Why? Because you can go back and change it later. The world is full of companies and leaders who are worried about getting it wrong,” he said, adding that it is “better to be wrong and change direction than be late.”

  • Valuing Harmony over Conflict
“You need debate,” he said. Suppose the company has decided to move in a different direction. “If a group of people that you’re leading hasn’t weighed in on a decision, then they don’t buy in on it. Good leaders—great leaders—have to demand conflict and most don’t. Our job as leaders is to get that most important, difficult, high-risk issue on the table first so you can make this an engaging and compelling meeting.”

Ultimately, “the purpose of conflict is to get to a final decision. The conflict should be constructive.” But how do you have conflict if there is a fear of “I’m going to be perceived as out of line”? Take the risk and share your concerns, Lencioni said. This is where vulnerability is valuable.

  • Valuing Invulnerability over Vulnerability
“A leader has to be vulnerable to the people he or she leads,” Lencioni said. This is necessary to build trust. “The leader can say, ‘I need help,’ ‘I apologize.’”

Lencioni ended his speech by telling emerging HR leaders, “You know what people want from a leader? Vulnerability, honesty and humanity.” These are what will make employees “walk through fire for a leader,” he said.

An HR professional who can help the organization’s leaders to be vulnerable to employees “will have a massive impact on people’s lives. … Leadership and management is a ministry,” he said.

Aliah D. Wright is an editor and manager for SHRM.
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