Sunday, October 17, 2010

Learning from the Mistakes other Leaders Make

In an article entitled ‘Ten Fatal Flaws That Derail Leaders’ published in the Harvard Business Review (2009); Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, wrote that; “Poor leadership in good times can be hidden, but poor leadership in bad times is a recipe for disaster,” (p.18).

Through analysing two different studies of leadership that covered over 11,000 leaders, including Fortune 500 leaders, Zenger and Folkman compared characteristics of leaders who were fired over a three year period and those leaders that were considered least effective. They identified the 10 most common shortcomings, listed below, where every ‘bad’ leader had at least one of the characteristics, though most had several;

1. Didn’t learn from mistakes
2. Lacked clear vision and direction
3. Failed to develop others
4. Accepted their own mediocre performance
5. Lacked interpersonal skills
6. Resisted new ideas
7. Didn’t collaborate
8. Had poor judgement
9. Didn’t walk the talk
10. Lacked energy and enthusiasm

The list above may seem obvious, and yet Zenger and Folkman found that the leaders they studied weren’t even aware of their shortcomings, and worse still, in most case rated themselves significantly more positively.

As organisations move through and out of the global crisis, will leaders have learnt from their mistakes (and the mistakes of others) – are they willing to focus on accurate self-evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses as a leader; and then prepared to make the personal changes necessary.

Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky (2009) highlight that “crisis leadership has two distinct phases. First is that emergency phase, when your task is to stabilise the situation and buy time. Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality,” (p.64).

During a crisis the organisation looks for clear direction and vision from the leadership, even while accepting that the road ahead may be filled with twists and turns. Yet, “getting an organisation to adapt to changes in the environment is not easy. You need to confront loyalty to legacy practices and understand that your desire to change them makes you a target of attack. The art of leadership in today’s world involves orchestrating the inevitable conflict, chaos, and confusion of change so that the disturbance is productive rather than destructive,” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009, p.65-66).

Organisations, when faced with crisis, look for strong, effective, and reliable leadership, to guide them forward successfully. Different people all through the organisation will have different fears and expectations, but will also have different ideas that they would like to share.

Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky mention how; “in a period of turmoil, you must look beyond the merits and issues to understand the interests, fears, aspirations, and loyalties of the factions that have formed around it. In a period of sustained uncertainty, the most difficult topics must be discussed. Dissenters who can provide crucial insights need to be protected from the organisational pressure to remain silent. Executives need to listen to unfamiliar voices and set the tone for candour and risk taking,’ (p.67).

Finally, both during a crisis and the recovery the strategic and organisational leadership needs to involve the whole organisation in the generation of ideas and solutions. This can be achieved by increasing the information flow that allows managers and staff across the organisation to make independent decisions and share the lessons they learn from their innovative efforts. If leadership does not encourage and listen to the widest possible range of life experiences and views, including those of younger employees, they risk both planning and operating without a true picture of the shifting realities facing the business internally and externally,” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009, p.68)


Heifetz, R., Grashow, A. and Linsky, M. (2009). Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87, Issue 7/8, p.62-69.

Zenger, J. and Folkman, J. (2009). Ten Fatal Flaws That Derail Leaders. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87, Issue 6, p.18.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. I agree with it, that leaders are unable to adapt. A winning strategy in the past, is no longer a winning strategy now. So they create a disaster by continuing to apply the same strategy repeatedly.