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The Bad Seed of Successful Leadership

One consequence of success as a leader is often a constricted ability to recognize the qualities that led to success.

There seems to be a self-destructive seed implanted in most leaders that is fertilized in direct proportion to the success achieved. When this seed is pollinated by the success of the leader, it diminishes the leader’s very ability to remain true to the attributes that led to success.

A recent survey nicely identifies the cause of that inexorable decline. When employees were asked to identify what causes them to follow a leader, the most frequent answer was: “He seems to really care about me and listens to what I have to say.” Likewise, when the same survey reversed the question and asked people what caused them to lose confidence in a leader, their response was, “He stopped caring about me and would never listen.” These results may seem obvious and simple, but it is amazing how many times this type of attitude-reversal emerges during the evolution of a person’s leadership style.

In the Beginning, Mr. Open Door

Normally, when a person first assumes a leadership position – at any level – he or she is excited, challenged and full of desire to do a good job, but it’s also natural for them to have a twinge of personal insecurity regarding their ability to actually do the job. (If they don’t, they are deluding themselves.) This enthusiasm for the new job, when mixed with the acknowledgement of not knowing it all, is a good thing. It encourages the new leader to be open and aggressively solicitous to ideas and input from a wide variety of sources. Desiring to do a good job, they will ask questions and listen to the ideas of others. Doing so allows them to draw on the perspective and experience of others and involves many in contributing to and owning the decisions made.

In contemporary business jargon, this is known as “team-building” and it is a well-proven approach for new leaders that enhances their chances for success. The idea of being open to input other than one’s own is important because being a great listener is one of the chief attributes of a successful leader.

Unfortunately, all too often, many successful leaders squander their chance for future achievements because they simply stop listening. As their leadership tenure extends and their successes multiply, there is a tendency among many leaders to begin to believe that they deserve to be canonized, if not deified.

It’s a Common Enough Problem

It is understandable why a long-term, successful leader could be tempted into this trap. Simply the idea that one has maintained their leadership position over time can easily become an assumptive validation of their ability to lead and a demonstration of their penchant for making all the right decisions. This kind of thinking can seep into the unconscious reasoning on the part of the leader. Longevity and success create the opportunity for the bad seed of leadership to rise up and create the idea in the mind of the leader that: “Hey, I’ve been here, done that. I’ve made the right decisions and I know what is best. If this were not so, then why have I been so successful?”

When this attitude takes hold, it sets in motion a series of events that can lead to the eventual downfall of the leader. No longer feeling the need for wide input, the leader systematically reduces the circle of those who have both the access and freedom to offer unvarnished advice. For those who do have access, there is soon recognition of the leader’s now “know-it-all” attitude and this leads to an inclination by the minions to wait for the leader to express his viewpoint and before they rush to agree.

This type of sycophantic input simply nourishes the bad seed of leadership. It isolates the leader who soon becomes entrapped in an echo chamber of his own thoughts, wherein he hears only “yes,” yes, yes” from those in his constricted circle of access. When this happens, the very elements that contributed to the success of the leader: openness, transparency, curiosity and willingness to listen to others and involve them in the process are lost.

A recent article in The New York Times chronicled the current struggles of the media sensation Netflix and took note of how the bad seed of leadership can threaten success. The writers opened the article with the anecdotal example of friends of Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, advising him that plans to divide the company’s Internet and DVD services into two – was a bad idea. However, with all his “advisors” in the company universally endorsing his idea, Hastings discounted and ignored the outside advice. So far the results have been a disaster. The number of subscribers has declined by over 800,000 and the stock value tanked from $304 in mid-July to a low of less than $75 last week. Nine billion dollars in market capitalization disappeared and Hastings was ridiculed as an arrogant, erratic decision-maker. Maybe Mr. Hastings will learn a lesson from this experience and if not, then we should.

Another good example of the perils created when the bad seed of successful leadership is germinated would be the leadership cycle of President Franklin Roosevelt. He entered the presidency faced with the greatest threat to this country since the Civil War. At the outset of his leadership, Roosevelt sought input and advice from a wide variety of experts and sources. He was certainly the captain of the ship, but he recognized a full crew would be needed to weather the storm. This resulted in a number of creative programs designed to blunt the impact of the depression. As Roosevelt’s time in office went on and his successful leadership ability was confirmed, the circle of those around him who were free to offer unfettered advice became smaller and smaller. By the end, that group had shrunk to no more than a handful and even Vice-President Harry Truman was excluded from the loop and oblivious to what was happening in the administration.

The best evidence of Roosevelt’s change in leadership attitude was his cockamamie scheme to “pack the Supreme Court.” In 1937, frustrated by the Supreme Court blocking a number of his plans to expand government in order to fight the depression, Roosevelt sent legislation to Congress that would expand the court from nine to 15 members. By the time this recommendation was made, Roosevelt had constricted his circle of advisors and there was no one willing or able to stand up and tell the emperor he had no clothes. The reaction was a political disaster for Roosevelt and was evidence that the bad seed of leadership had taken full bloom. Roosevelt may clearly have been the greatest president of the 20th century, but the lesson here is that when not careful, even the most successful leaders can and do lose sight of what made them successful. And so can we, if not careful.

And the Moral of the Story …

For those who not only want to achieve success as a leader – at any level – but to maintain that success over time, there is an essential lesson to learn. When you reach the point that you allow your experience and past success to plant the seed in your thinking that you know it all – know that you don’t. When everyone you talk to talks the same talk you talk, know that you have not talked to enough people.

Success in leadership comes from being exposed to a wide variety of ideas and input; it means being open and constantly learning from others and then coalescing those thoughts into a plan with the best chance of achieving its objective. Failure to do so will allow the bad seed of leadership to grow and choke out the success that has been achieved, while sowing the seeds of failure.