Blog Post 9-4-12

When Our Strengths Are Our Downfall

Ryan was one of those guys people noticed at work. Confident, a quick decision maker and a forward-thinking leader, he moved quickly up the ranks and made division chief before he was 30. Everyone said he would lead an agency someday, and Ryan himself seemed to believe that too.

No one remembers when things started to slip for Ryan. Was it when he began making decisions without asking for input from his people? Or perhaps when he made that unfortunate comment to the media about how sure he was that the economic climate would not change significantly enough for the agency to change its course? Or maybe it was the day he told his deputy, in front of an entire room full of staff members, that he had his head up his butt for second guessing a decision Ryan had made earlier that year. Whenever it was, most people can tell you exactly what brought Ryan down. His greatest strength, self-confidence, became his greatest weakness, and eventually it blew up his career.

We all know someone who failed in a leadership position for similar reasons. Sometimes it was a spectacular and very public failure; other times it was just a quiet stagnation. The charismatic leader who everyone paid attention to became the person who must always be the center of attention; the thoughtful, prudent leader became so paralyzed by caution that she was eventually regarded as completely ineffective; the creative risk-taker became the renegade, whose belief that rules were made to be broken eventually caused him to lose his boss's trust. Tim Irwin, in Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership says that leaders typically fall from a failure of character, most commonly in the areas of authenticity, self-management, humility and courage.

How do you ensure that this doesn't become your own story?
It starts with finding a way to uncover blind spots. We all have behavioral characteristics that are visible to others but not to ourselves, and the higher the leadership position we're in, the less likely we are to get honest feedback from direct reports and colleagues. Executive coaching, 360-degree surveys, in-depth leadership workshops and self-assessments all can be good tools to learn about your blind spots.

Perhaps most important is the willingness to explore your own behavior and its impact on others, and to cultivate trusting relationships in which you can ask for feedback. To get honest, useful feedback from others we must make it safe for people to tell us what we might not want to hear. And we must also have the courage to give that same honest, useful feedback to others, even when it feels risky. Avoiding the excesses that can bring leaders down is ultimately a joint effort, a partnership between authentic leaders who want to strengthen the organizations they lead by increasing their own self-awareness. In light of recent leadership failures in the government and private sector, the need for such leadership has never been stronger.

For over thirty years we have worked with leaders at every level in the federal government including SES to brand new supervisors. We have observed that most of them have many of the same key success factors in place.

For a copy of the "TOP 5 Leadership Success Factors" send a request to Ben Hassinger.