Monday, April 8, 2013

Leading is more than "not getting caught"...

My experience in coaching high-level executives has led me to conclude that far too many of them suffer from either a narcissistic desire to be perfect and have a reticence to admit mistakes or even see them as a necessary part of being a good leader. (from "Great leaders use failure to become more successful" by Ray Williams, National Post, April 3, 2013, below)
The character of a leader is, indeed, an important component in how s/he fills the role. A narcissistic desire to be perfect and a reticence to admit mistakes or even see them as a necessary part of being a good leader are two qualities that emerge from the demands of both the society, as represented by the media, and the organization in which the leader operates. Failure and risk taking which might lead to mistakes are not the kind of cultual legacy any leader wishes to leave in an organization. However, paradoxically, the demand for perfection imposes strict limits on too many organizations through their leaders, as to in effect impose a culture of "restricted and impaired vision" for the leader and the organization.
North American culture, especially, runs corporate training programs in public relations, for the specific purpose of training leaders in how to manage "screw-ups" by the organization. And everyone on both sides of the 49th parallel knows that all corporations and all leaders "screw-up"....only the ones who successfully manage those screw-ups survive.
Managing the screw-ups sometimes burying a scapegoat, on whom responsibility for the public relations 'nightmare' can be shifted. Sometimes, it means putting out stories that present a different narrative from the one that exposed the failure. Sometimes, it means transferring the responsible leader to another department, or anther country, in order to "skate" through the thin ice of public opinion. Sometimes, it means taking action on a different file in order to deflect the public attention away from the screw-up....
And none of these public relations tactics serves the organization's core responsibility of integrity, regardless of the kind of business it is in.
There is a deep and profound resonance to failure, and everyone who breathes knows how deeply impacting it is. Only the "driven" and the obsessive fail to see their own part in the drama that is currently embroiling both the leader and the organization. What is both tragic and avoidable is the resistance to accept the leader's and the organization's responsibility for their individual and collective participation in whatever disaster is encircling the executive suites.
Accepting responsibility, including coming forward publicly to others serving in the organzation and to the wider "client" publics, is an must become an integral act of both contrition and integrity on the part of both the leader and the organization.
What is tragic is to witness the complete detachment from all forms of organizational failure by both the leaders and the organization, as if to say and to believe, that getting caught is the only thing that matters.
It was Iago's wife, in the Shakespearean tragedy, Othello, who articulated such a point of view, as the one incarnated by her nefarious husband Iago whose manipulations of both the hero and his love directly led to their tragic ends.
Getting caught is not the only thing that matters, and the sooner we are able to excise such thinking from our parenting, our schools, our religious training and our organizational cultures, the more likely we will remove the lowered ceilings of both vision and accomplishment from our various organizations.
And that will take courageous leadership, something we see far to little of today.

Great leaders use failure to become more successful

By Ray Williams, National Post, Aprilo 3, 2013 —Ray Williams is President of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver, providing leadership training, executive coaching and speaking services. He can be reached at

We’ve often heard the expression “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” By extension, that means failure and obstacles are good things. Yet this thinking for the general populace doesn’t seem to apply to leaders.

When these concepts are applied to leadership it can take the form of a career requirement. Steven Snyder, author of Leadership and The Art of The Struggle, argues “struggle and leadership are intertwined… Great leaders use failure as a wake-up call.”
Yet, our culture, and the media that propels it, favours promoting leaders as faultless — a Teflon-like image. As Bill George argues, we quickly turn away from leaders who have made mistakes and the media tries to bury them.
Despite the substantial amount of psychological research and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates how failure and adversity can be of great benefit to leaders, we continue to insist on perfection.
Snyder argues that great leaders don’t use failure as a reason to blame others, don’t avoid responsibility or become victims, but rather, “seek out the counsel of a mentor and/or turn their attention inward for reflection and introspection.” He advances the following principles of his “Struggle Lens” to guide leaders:

•Leadership is a struggle that provides a gateway to learning and growth;

•All human beings have flaws, including leaders;

•While accomplishing goals is important, human values must drive leaders;

•Leaders must accept the world as it is, not as they would like it to be, while still striving to make it better.

Drawing on his experience of working with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft, and his knowledge of leaders in companies such as Apple, Target and General Mills, Snyder proposes a framework for leaders to thrive in struggle: become grounded; explore new pathways and deepen adaptive strategy.
My experience in coaching high-level executives has led me to conclude that far too many of them suffer from either a narcissistic desire to be perfect and have a reticence to admit mistakes or even see them as a necessary part of being a good leader. In many ways, this demand and expectation for perfect leaders has been responsible for recruiting and promoting these kinds of leaders, who ultimately don’t serve their organizations, or society well.
Snyder’s book makes a significant contribution to realizing that struggles and failures make the best leaders.


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