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
backlashes from the public and exaggerations of their failures. Throw in a
couple of crises, scandals and disasters, and very few leaders emerge
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.
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.
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 Russia, even 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.
"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.
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 ways for a leader not only to lose face, but to be vilified and removed from his position.
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.
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 I 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 freedigitalphotos.net. Second and fourth images courtesy of Iosphere; via freedigitalphotos.net. Picture of Malala Yousafzai with President Jonathan, courtesy of Twitter. Third, fifth and sixth images courtesy of Stuart Miles; via freedigitalphotos.net. Screenshot of CNN headline, taken by author.