Thursday, 31 July 2014

From Politics to Corporateville - Top 5 Mistakes Leaders Make

Leadership is no easy feat.

And when it is done genuinely, without  fear or favour, it can often be lonely  -  you  defending your principles or holding on to your integrity.

Indeed,  after the 'prestige' of a  position wears off or its 'sheen' is dulled by the unyielding harshness of reality, leaders become susceptible to unwarranted criticisms, backlashes from the public and exaggerations of their failures. Throw in a couple of crises, scandals and disasters, and very few leaders emerge unscathed.

Alas that's how it is and at the risk of sounding insensitive - that's what they signed up for. Leadership is not meant to be a bed of roses. It can however be fulfilling, as some are convinced, if executed properly. More often than not, leaders make serious and very public errors.

Some faux-pas are nonetheless avoidable. These influence the perceptions of the public, leading to judgements that certain leaders are ineffective, weak or both.

So whether you are a leader of a company, an organisation or of a country, below are five mistakes you should avoid like a plague.

1) Embracing  the  'Me Syndrome'


Power, even perceived power and influence, can be intoxicating. And if a leader is not disciplined or lacks humility, it becomes more difficult to remember the reason for wanting to lead in the first place.

If your influence is significant, then there's also a risk of becoming narcissistic and of believing everything and everyone should be aligned to promote the cause that is YOU. Should your advisors only tell you what you want to hear, then you, as a leader, would lose sight of what is truly important - the people.

Case in point - the abduction of 200+ schoolgirls from their dormitories by Islamic militants Boko Haram, on April 14, 2014, in Chibok, north-eastern Nigeria.


While the abduction was itself a shocking incident that led to international outrage, what was particularly distressing to the anguished families of the missing schoolgirls, was the perceived slow response of the Nigerian government to the crisis. President Jonathan was criticised for not showing enough concern and for not doing enough to rescue the girls, the complexities of a rescue notwithstanding.

It took a social media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls - which started in Nigeria and spread throughout the world - to gather some intelligence and support from the U.S, UK and others.

Unfortunately, it was not until a request was made by 17-year old education rights' activist, Malala Yousafzai during her visit to Nigeria, that  arrangements were made for  President Jonathan to meet the parents/relatives of the kidnapped girls...three months after the abduction. Not surprisingly, the hastily-planned meeting with the President was rejected in early July by the schoolgirls' guardians because the group wanted all stakeholders represented, and just not a select few. 

Sources from the Presidency blamed the shunned meeting on political opponents who, they stated, were manipulating the parents/relatives of the Chibok girls to discredit the President.

Even then, they still didn't 'get' it - it wasn't about President Jonathan's image or political aspirations. It was about the victims, the schoolgirls, who were still being detained by the militants, three months after their abduction, and the daily agony of their relatives, some of whom died from heart failures and high blood pressure because of the ordeal.

Then almost 100 days after the abduction, President Jonathan finally met the 51 girls who had escaped and their relatives.

So as a leader, note that it's not about you.  It should be about the people you are leading and about how you can serve them and make their lives better/happier/safer.  

Avoid the  'Me Syndrome'  and you will be one step closer to winning the hearts of your followers.

2) Being in denial

"The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse".

- Edmund Burke

On July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airways flight MH17 left Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with 298 passengers and crew but crashed in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, essentially a war zone. The area, although on Ukraine territory, was controlled by Russian rebels and had been subject to attacks in recent times in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The tragedy, "a very human tragedy" as the media stated, is believed to have been caused by a surface-to-air missile system, called a Buk, which Ukraine believed was used by Russian separatists to bring down the passenger jet, killing all on board, including 80 children. Ukrainian government officials were convinced that  calls they intercepted between the Russian terrorists incriminated the rebels. 

Not surprisingly, the Russian rebels deny shooting down the plane, stating they lacked the technical knowledge to use the sophisticated surface-to-air missile system. This declaration was made despite the separatists  having  claimed  responsibility  for  shooting down, not too long before the crash, an AN-26 military plane at 21,000 feet; an altitude only reachable by "a sophisticated surface-to-air missile with radar guidance", as was stated in reports. It is believed that the MK17 was flying at 33,000 feet when it was shot down.

The manifest of the passengers and crew, released by Malaysian Airways revealed that victims were citizens of different countries including: the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Britain, Germany and the United States. According to reports, 193 of the deceased were Dutch, making the Netherlands the hardest hit. The international representation of the victims meant that the collective anger of the affected nations was directed at those they considered responsible for the tragedy -  the Russian rebels -  and by extension, fair or not, at Russia.

While we may not know all the facts until a later date, the response of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, leaves a lot to be desired. Blaming Ukraine for the tragedy, he remained defiant in the face of allegations of Russia's involvement in the attack on MH17. He also appeared to be in denial over mounting, (albeit at the time, not entirely substantiated) information suggesting Russia's culpability.

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia had reached a worrisome high. So it was plausible for one country to blame the other for the tragedy and for bitter accusations to be traded.

Nevertheless, President Putin's delayed action, over how  the wreckage site/crime scene was heavily guarded by the Russian separatists, making investigation difficult; or how he didn't address  the way the bodies were treated at the crash site, did not earn him brownie points.

In the same vein, his delay in directing the Russian rebels to co-operate with international community, to ensure free access to the crash site for international investigators, rescue workers, journalists etc; did not mirror empathy for the outraged nations and grieving families.

It was not until about  a week after the crash that Russia stated that it would co-operate with the MH17 probe led by the Netherlands. This declaration I believe, came much too late as the damage had already been done.  

Allowing precious time to elapse before offering concrete solutions or ignoring  critical information in the hope that widespread criticisms would go away, is denial at its peak. It is also an ineffective tactic for any leader facing such a crisis. This is because at some point, the truth will surface and your credibility would be severely tarnished, with notable consequences. 

For example, following international condemnation of Vladimir Putin's inaction in the wake of the MH17 tragedy, and his continued disregard of the serious allegations levelled against Russia for arming the Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, a strong call was made for the European Union (EU) to impose tougher sanctions on Russia. than had been placed by the U.S a day before the shooting down of MH17.

Then on July 29, 2014,  the  EU ran out of patience  and made  good   on   its  threat.  It  displayed the strong political will required to approve wider sanctions on Russia, targeting its economy. The EU was also expected to release names of more Russian officials facing asset freezes and travel bans in Europe.

The bad news kept coming for the Russian President - the United States followed suit later that day and listed additional sanctions on Russiaeven as President Obama criticised Russia for failing to co-operate with the international community regarding  the investigation into the MH17 crash.

The response from Russian authorities regarding the EU's action was not surprising - indifference. They believed that the sanctions would 'inevitably' raise energy prices in Europe, indirectly suggesting that by imposing the sanctions, the EU was cutting off its nose to spite its face. According to  the New York Times, Russian officials belittled the sanctions, and opined  that   the   latter would  in fact strengthen the country's economy but would worsen the diplomatic atmosphere.

Only time would tell whether or not  the EU and US sanctions would gravely impact the Russian economy.

However, a crucial lesson for  leaders can be learnt  from President Putin's mistake of being in denial - there are consequences for indulging in the false sense of security that denial brings. Indeed, not only does it cloud reasonable judgement and delay solutions, all which unfavourably impact your effectiveness, but it also negates the public's perceptions of your abilities and loses you sympathetic supporters or powerful allies.

Don't do it; it is always counter-productive.

As a leader, you must also be careful not to abuse your power. Even inaction in very dire circumstances, such as in the aftermath of the MH17 tragedy, could be cruel, particularly when heart-wrenching grief was experienced by multiple families in different countries.

Be human -  empathise with the suffering, face challenges bravely and proactively seek solutions for the sake of  your followers.

3) Enabling the 'I-Am-Always-Right Mentality'

"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely". 

The quote above, credited to 19th century British historian, Sir John Dalberg-Acton, is just as apt today as it was centuries ago.


While this point is very similar to #1, pride and arrogance are the root of this mentality and unlike #1, the leader is his own worst enemy who sabotages his career or efforts because of an inflated perception of self.

So he does not genuinely delegate.  While he may show some semblance of conferring with others and of listening to their suggestions, he impulsively overrules sensible advice and unilaterally acts on his  beliefs, which are average at best, but  disastrous in testing situations.                                   


Quite by chance, he makes some practical decisions. However, when a crisis occurs, requiring a complex strategy beyond the realm of his expertise or experience, he crashes and burns.  

Since his pride hinders him from asking for help from anyone -  whether from those he considers beneath his station/influence, those at par with him, or from those more discerning than him  -  and because he has alienated potential supporters, such a leader's failure may be too much of a burden to bear. Psychological issues, depression and real health worries may follow. If he doesn't seek medical attention and/or therapy, it may end badly for him.  

While this extreme might sound far-fetched, leaders should generally resist the desire for personal glory. They should avoid the quest for, and lure of absolute power, which corrupts the mind and numbs the voice of reason. No man is an island and great leaders should not be afraid to ask for help. In fact, many corporate leaders today advocate hiring people who are smarter than they are. There is strength in numbers and no leader, no matter how gifted, can know it all.

For any business, whether small or complex, whose owners may excel following their 'guts',  keeping an open mind and being flexible, and thus adaptable, is the key to success. Keeping traditions is fine but remaining resistant to change is often the kiss of death if you want your business to adapt, innovate or grow. And you will need the help of others to succeed.

So if you want to lead effectively in Corporateville, un-learn this mentality of believing you know it all.

4) Not    balancing    the    'Confidentiality/ Transparency  Scale'

This issue is actually a legitimate concern as sometimes, there is a thin line between what information should be kept confidential,     (secret), and what should be revealed. Given also legal restrictions to certain information, proprietary rights, rights to privacy, or issues pertaining to national security - there are certain things that the public should not be privy to in the first instance.

But, and there is a huge but - when matters directly affect the public  i.e.  its health, safety and well being - transparency is necessary, especially when human lives are at stake.


So during disasters, crises, epidemics, tragedies etc, withholding information in the hope of avoiding widespread panic, or to reduce liability/culpability or because of the fear of criticism, is a wrong move. It is also one of the quickest way for a leader not only to lose face, but to be vilified and removed from his position.

The corporate world is rife with various crises, such as: faulty ignition switches claiming at least 13 lives in 2014, (General Motors); Gulf oil spill, stated to be the worst oil spill in U.S history, causing huge environmental damage in 2010, (British Petroleum);  and amongst others, financial mismanagement, corruption, stock price crashes, in 2001 (ENRON). These situations required  full disclosure because of human errors and mechanical faults. 

During tough circumstances, factual and timely feedback  is crucial for  crisis management. This creates trust and trust generates support and strength of purpose -  all which open the door to co-operation and collaboration, leading to solutions.

Yes, it is likely that the leader would have to accept responsibility for errors made under his watch; he may have to 'own' the crisis as they say. Nevertheless, if the leader understands how to balance the 'Confidentiality/Transparency Scale', (with the help of experienced, trusted advisers), he is likely to remain standing after the storm has passed.  

So leaders, cultivate the skill of finding the right balance. You should know when to provide clear, factual and timely feedback and when to be cautious about revealing certain things until a later date. Being tactful will pay off sooner than you think.   

5) Having poor or ineffective communication skills

This is an important, albeit underestimated, mistake leaders make.

Being a weak speaker can elicit ridicule, just as writing poorly can evoke derision. There is also the subtle dimension of communication -  body language cues -  which leaders may not notice.

Communicating effectively is not about being a great orator or about writing excellent, perfectly-constructed content. While you may have excellent verbal skills and may write convincing pieces, if you cannot use clear, simple language that your audience will understand and believe, then your speech/address/press release benefits no one but yourself.  As you cannot lead with purpose without a dedicated following, this point should concern you. 

It is therefore important to ask yourself these questions: 


Am I honest in my communications or do I embellish the unfavourable information? 

Does my email/memo/letter display a true concern for the issues important to my audience?  

Do I take responsibility for problems or do I waffle on or  play the victim?                                                                              

Do I communicate like a robot, reading my speech throughout a televised segment, with an expressionless face? 

Do I fidget, avoid looking at the camera, bark out my speech or become incoherent?

Answering such questions truthfully is key to accurately assessing your communication skills. Your followers/employees/fellow citizens, are smart  and would question your motives and your delivery. 


Make a deliberate effort to improve your communication skills and you will become a more credible leader, especially if your words are backed up by action.  



Leadership can often be a complex issue so the mistakes mentioned in this post are in no way exhaustive.


Nevertheless, the  tips  given  support  the widely desired version of leadership - "servant leadership" - which advocates the leader having  at his core, the conviction  to serve.

It is important to note that political and corporate leaders lead people and these people have aspirations, expectations and obligations which they expect their leaders to prioritise. 

No one is perfect but by avoiding the five mistakes mentioned, you are likely to become the kind of leader would vote for, follow or support. 

So, what other mistakes do political and corporate leaders make?

Kindly post your comments below, anonymously if you prefer.

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N.B– First and seventh images courtesy of Renjith Krishnan; via Second and fourth images courtesy of Iosphere; via Picture of Malala Yousafzai with President Jonathan, courtesy of Twitter. Third, fifth and sixth images courtesy of Stuart Miles; via Screenshot of CNN headline, taken by author.  

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Teamwork For Dummies - Rules Of Engagement

It doesn't matter if you are an introvert or an extrovert. At some point in your career, you will be required to work in teams.

Introverts - the thought of having to become 'exposed' and having to deal with sometimes loud, opinionated colleagues, or having to put yourselves 'out there' could be daunting. You really would prefer to be left alone to do your best work.  I get it. I am an introvert myself. But here's the thing: you run a real risk of sabotaging your careers if you are not seen as, (gasp), team players. There is also a possibility of not receiving credit for your work or being passed over for promotions.

Extroverts - you may have to 'tame' yourselves and get over your  'big-fish-in- a- small-pond' mentality for the sake of the teams. You too will be judged on how well you can co-operate with others. This unspoken assessment could make or break your careers.

So how do you, introvert, work well in a  diverse team to achieve the desired results?

And how would you, extrovert, rally the troops, while at the same time ensure that there is a 'democracy' of influence within the group and that the strength of one does not overshadow power of all?

The simple answer is. this - through effective teamwork communication. Remember that communication encompasses  oral and verbal elements, as well as non-verbal, (body language) cues.

In the video below of  the revised classic story of  “The Turtle and the Rabbit”, we could learn some valuable lessons for good teamwork dynamics. (If you are unable to view the video on your mobile device, click  here.)


Let’s address these tips or “rules of engagement” closely.

1) Know your uniqueness but willingly accept challenges

The Turtle was aware that he was naturally disadvantaged and that technically, he could not win a race with the Rabbit whose greatest asset was his speed. But that did not deter the Turtle from accepting the race. Even after losing the first time, he did some thinking and having identified his core competency, challenged the Rabbit to a second race...which he subsequently won.

Similarly, in a team environment, you will need to show that you are committed to the cause by rising to the challenge. This you could do by communicating your ideas in a clear, simple manner. Suggest a meeting to tackle key areas and use a free web-based application such as Google Hangouts for instant messaging and video calls. Send emails or make calls. Take 'minutes' after discussions, send reminders and above all, give timely and factual feedback. If you are not the team lead on a project, support the lead/supervisor by doing all these things whenever feasible. Such actions would soothe ruffled feathers and encourage active participation of team members.

No one expects you to morph into a different being just to get the work done as you will up feeling disingenuous if you do.

However, as we should always strive to improve our communication skills and practise new, desired non-verbal behaviours until they become positive parts of our personas,  there is an interesting school of thought, à la Professor Amy Cuddy. In this TED video about how body language shapes who we are, she advises: "fake it 'til you become it". (You could also click here to view the video.)


Therefore, in your team environment, even if some traits are alien to your personality, ‘fake’ certain behaviours that would be beneficial to your team and to your overall performance. These could include speaking up in meetings, assisting team members, being proactive in your assigned tasks and striving to bring value to the group. Help the team succeed and your efforts would be quietly noted. Moreover, you would become a better communicator and a wiser professional.

2) Do not be over-confident


Realise that the team's success lies in the sum of individual, productive parts.

The Rabbit learnt the hard way. As it was stated, he was so certain of his skill that he became lax. So while he was napping under a tree, the Turtle prodded on at its slow pace and won the race.

During a team project, over-confidence can lead to costly mistakes, which if unchecked by the team lead or other members, could lead to financial or operational losses.

Just because you can boast of a wealth of experience in a specific location or knowledge of a complex function that is invaluable to the project, does not mean you should 'lord' it over your team members. You do not need to dominate the conversation. Others may have valuable suggestions worth noting that you haven't considered in your persistent bid to 'prove' yourself.

Communicate with humility: check the tone of your voice and speak in a controlled register when the entire team meets. Avoid using "I" consistently, except there's a vote and start suggestions with: "Let's consider this....";  "Perhaps Mr. X could try this..." etc. No one likes to be lectured to.

3) Seek clarity at all times

There is a possibility that members of your team may be based in other geographical regions where face-to-face meetings may not always be possible.

True, with the technology available, you could manage projects by creating cloud-based 'shared folders', which every team member could assess via his computer or mobile device once the application is installed, as is available with  Dropbox. Similarly, you could  have visual contact with team members via Skype, VSee, or other Google Hangouts alternatives.

However, when it is impractical to use such applications for whatever reasons, the communication is likely to be restricted to emails and telephone calls.

In such scenarios, clarity becomes crucial for ease of execution.

In the video, after each one was  beaten by the other, the Turtle and the Rabbit  came  together and had an honest conversation about their attributes. They were clear about their strategy for the team race and co-operated with each other, harnessing individual skills for a co-ordinated and flawless execution. The result? They won the a team.

So make your telephone calls productive by listing the key issues to be tackled in a calm tone, observing  telephone etiquette such as  keeping the calls short, listening without interrupting, paraphrasing where necessary  etc. Follow up with emails soon afterwards, ensuring that subject line are precise and use bullet points to highlight information. Seek clarity and transparency to ensure that team members are updated so that the project's pace is not stalled by incomplete information or other setbacks.

4) Celebrate the team's success

The success of one means the success of all. Even if you are the catalyst for your team's noteworthy feats, celebrate your contributions in the team's success.


Be generous with your praise and express pride in the effort of the team. You are stronger together than you are apart.

In the video, we are told that when they won as a team, both the Turtle and the Rabbit felt a greater sense of accomplishment than when each won separately.

Their honest communication, co-operation and trust in each other's ability made the difference in the result attained.

And that really is the beauty of effective teamwork.


It is now clear that at the heart of great team dynamics is clear and effective  communication.

There is also the notion that we should never stop learning. We cannot know it all. The day we become complacent in our careers and stop learning, is the moment we stop growing.

So you see why it shouldn't matter if you are an introvert or extrovert, a millennial or seasoned professional? When working in a team, remember the “rules of engagement” mentioned in this post and become a more effective team player. Your career would thank you for it. 

What other tips would you give for great teamwork? Kindly post your comments below, anonymously if you prefer.

Recommended reading

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N.B –  First image courtesy of  Renjith Krishnan; via Second image courtesy of Cooldesign; via Third and fourth images courtesy of Stuart Miles; via Fifth image courtesy of Nongpimmy; via Last image courtesy of Jscreationzs; via Videos courtesy of Youtube.