A total commitment to leadership success means challenging our thinking, priorities and blind spots. Unfortunately, what people don’t communicate to us are our behavioural blind spots – the things we routinely do to others but don’t realize the impact.
When blind spots are not revealed and the truth about our behaviour is not openly discussed, we continue to operate on cruise control. We keep doing the same things over and over. As a result of our ‘unconscious incompetence’ our learning is stifled. We become our largest barrier to leadership success.
Today, I will reveal eight barriers to leadership that I have experienced myself or heard people communicate about their leaders. Some of these barriers will be things you have heard before, behaviours you have personally witnessed and maybe a few surprises.
1. Lack of trust by managers in their team members’ capabilities, skills or commitment. This factor is very serious. The best laid plans or the most ambitious goals and the most vibrant business strategies are not going to succeed with inexperienced employees who lack the essential business skills. Also, if they do not display a steadfast discipline or if they cannot demonstrate an aptitude for the job, your firm could be in trouble.
Consequently, if you show a lack of trust in some personnel, don’t blame them entirely. It is your responsibility to maintain an environment where knowledge, ongoing training and discipline stand out as the bedrock components of successful performance.
Understand, too, that a certain amount of challenge is desirable to maintain the agility, motivation and energy to solve problems and identify moneymaking opportunities.
2. Lack of trust by employees in their manager’s ability to make correct decisions. This is particularly troublesome. It will be a problem should your staff’s morale deteriorate and they lose confidence in your ability to deal with what they perceive as a hopeless situation that could threaten their jobs — and even the company. Here, again, skill, courage and determination are necessary traits that require continuous reinforcement.
3. Inadequate support from the top management or senior executives. If gaps in communication exist among various levels, the result is inadequate command and control. In turn, such a vacuum prevents timely support in such areas as: approving or shifting resources to secure a competitive position or improving customer services. Then, there is needed support for such essential projects as new product/market development and wider distribution. Beyond those areas is the back-up you need to pull together all the projects and activities and align them with your business plan.
4. Disagreement and open confrontation with others about objectives, priorities and strategies. Where individuals of equal rank cannot resolve difficulties independently, as a leader, it is up to you to intervene. Where there are limited resources and numerous ‘great’ proposals, it is typical and understandable that there will be disagreements and even inner-fighting. That means resources must be allocated among many business proposals, all of which are vying for attention. Inevitably, some plans get short-changed or receive an outright turndown. And even the winners suffer the effects of lost time that slows their efforts. Painfully, the lapse in time may give the edge to an alert competition.
5. Highly conservative company culture places a drag on getting projects moving. This is a tough barrier. Yet, it is one that you must face. If your company’s culture is out of synch with the competitive environment and if you are not in position to change the culture, you must adapt plans to the existing culture with the aim of moving as rapidly as possible.
6. Lack of urgency in introducing new products/new markets to deal with short product lifecycles. It is no secret that products exist in a short timeframe and in a commercial world that clamours for faster/cheaper. Where that basic knowledge is not fully internalized by you and others, or acted upon quickly, results can be shattering.
7. No simplified system of control exists, so that cumbersome committees prolong deliberation that results in unwarranted delays. In a small organisation, the owner or CEO is at the helm. He or she is in a unique position to control planning and execution. Thus, decisions are less likely to be misinterpreted, delayed or contested. Plans can be implemented with consistency and speed.
However, should roadblocks exist that prevent decisions being made in a timely manner, an unwieldy process exists that can result in the following drawbacks: (a) Loss of time recovering market information, (b) Loss of time sending orders forward to key individuals and staff, (c) Lack of full knowledge of the situation by the owner or CEO, (d) Reduction of key individuals’ involvement in issues that affect the availability of resources.
Therefore, a more flexible, smaller organisation can potentially achieve greater market penetration because it has the capacity to adjust to varying circumstances more rapidly. It can thereby concentrate at the decisive point before a larger competitor has a chance to respond.
8. Threats from aggressive competitors strike fear among your employees, which damages morale and results in lost momentum. Psychological impressions can create perceptions of success or failure in an individual’s mind, as if they were actual physical encounters with competitors. Thus, perception, what the mind can conjure up, believe and then react to, is indeed reality. Such perceptions feed employees’ reactions, which generate a set of emotions. Some are correct, others distorted. That means employees will react to signs they choose to interpret and believe through observation, feel or from the inevitable rumours — right or wrong.
What follows is that your employees’ morale could falter based on the slightest signs of what they perceive as a reversal. Such warnings could include: failed performance of a new product, reduced profits, changing customer behaviour or competitors grabbing your key customers.
Breaking barriers The key goal of overcoming the barriers, in fact, depends on how we overcome the identity or the essential personality of the leader, which inherently inhibits getting to the brutal reality of a company’s situation. The companies defined as ‘great’ were led by leaders who had an uncanny capacity to get to the brutal reality of their business situation by getting their people to perceive and speak the truth. This capacity is related to the leaders’ paradoxical qualities – their genuine humility and their fierce determination to succeed.
You may find this solution deceptively simple. No, it is not so. The problem is this: which of us does not think that we can perceive brutal reality? At best, we may admit that we benefit from others’ perspectives to round out our point of view. But what you miss is that the problem is more subtle than this. Reality is continually distorted through the lens of our identity (our beliefs, values, emotions, memories and experiences). Each one of us approaches an issue with a perspective shaped by our identity. This is why collaboration that encourages and protects divergent points of view within companies is critical to high-quality decision-making.
Not every leader should reach the highest level in order to create the ideal environment. But each key leader must transform him or her to the degree that he or she can help create and operate within the highest level environment. And an organisation must then encourage all its key leaders to do this. This is a practical although still difficult solution to the problem of how to get to brutal reality, the foundation of sustainable high performance.
(Lionel Wijesiri, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience, can be contacted at email@example.com)