Governor Christie’s (New Jersey) recent controversy reminds us about key leadership challenges. A leader must cultivate effective habits to successfully lead over a sustained period. Some habits are so important that if they are absent, all other positive traits cannot make up for them. One of those essential habits is integrity. Another is to be selflessly focused on the organization and its people before personal status.
Most of us have unfortunately experienced working in an organization where the leader is selfish and self-centered. Somewhere along the way, the personal security of that leader has eclipsed mission effectiveness and organizational health. It is painfully obvious to all members that for the leader, “it’s all about Me.”
For this leader, the mission become to appear strong and in control to their boss, peers or the public, to achieve personal political success. Being exclusively focused upward and outward, the organization has become merely a vehicle for leaders to glorify themselves. Temper tantrums explode daily–not because the mission has failed–but because the car is late, or a fact was left out of a read-ahead, or they did not get cleared for business-class airline seating. “No one takes coach seriously.” The leader seizes any organizational successes as being an exclusive product of their personal direction, and short-falls are hidden or ignored.
Members follow the leader’s lead: instead of building effective programs and executing missions, the organization falls into a performance pattern of risk-avoidance and surviving each day without being abused. When members cannot duck staff meetings, they attend to survive, nodding and agreeing with the boss so the meeting will conclude. Why volunteer a candid opinion when the leader’s object is to appear powerful and superior?
Most leaders do not start out that way. After all, unless they inherited the business from their parent, they have to work their way up and pay their dues. Yet toxic leaders are common. How does this occur?
Unfortunately many large bureaucratic organizations glorify and insulate emerging leaders from the rank-and-file. In big organizations, often future leaders are identified early-on when they are compliant followers. They are separated from the herd and placed on a separate career track, characterized by short stints in various functional staffs: long enough to make contacts and learn high-level issues but avoid getting their hands dirty. A self-fulfilling cycle of early promotions, elite schools, and prime assignments adds layer after layer of varnish. It does not take long until these emerging leaders believe in their own personal superiority: how else can they justify their rapid advancement? Even the most down-to-earth folks implicitly come to see the mission as achieving a high rank so they finally have the authority to do good. Over time, however, they have lost touch with the organization’s most vexing challenges on the ground.
Such leaders are usually unaware how their people really see them. Most enjoy the comfortable view from their high-horse. In healthy organizations, someone can shut the door and tell the leader the truth. A leadership coach from outside the organization can provide frank feedback. The payoff can be increased effectiveness, a sustainable professional climate, and reaping the potential from talented subordinates.