Are Your Leaders Trained to Avoid These 4 Mistakes?

Leadership expert John Hamm, author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, February 2011, www.unusuallyexcellent.com ), has spent his career studying the practitioners of unusually excellent leadership via his work as a CEO, venture capitalist, board member, high-level consultant, and professor of leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. In his powerful back-to-basics reference book, he offers both seasoned and aspiring leaders a framework for understanding and a guide for applying the battle-tested fundamentals of leadership.

According to Hamm, the following are the seven leadership mistakes that put your team in danger of failing elegantly—along with some remedies to get them back into the winner’s mindset.

1. Setting impossible goals. Leading the goal-setting process to arrive at objectives that are perfectly sized is very tricky work, but this effort has never been more important to success than it is in today’s geographically dispersed, virtual organizations. Taskmasters and pacesetting leaders need to learn the fine line between an invigorating challenge and a wholly deflating expectation. They also need to realize that everyone on the team may not share their level of maniacal commitment.

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“While top performers are inspired by ‘stretch’ goals that seem slightly out of their reach, smart team members will not waste their time training for a ‘three-minute mile,’” says Hamm. “Goals that are clearly beyond any reasonable confidence of achievement are worse than easy goals—they actually disengage your team’s energy. The predictable and natural response is ‘Why bother?’”

2. Letting people get pseudo-wins by “majoring in the minors.” Very talented people can and do lose focus on the critical path problems that must be solved to transform an idea into reality. Those are often the knottiest problems, and sometimes we resist them for a period of time, preferring to create some satisfying momentum on simpler tasks or tasks that are simply more fun.

“Leaders must develop an eye and ear for this weakness—and must try to listen for it in every conversation and look for it in every ops review,” notes Hamm. “They must relentlessly redirect energy to the hard problems, realizing that it is human nature to drift from the tough stuff in favor of more emotionally fulfilling and easier project modules.”

3. Tolerating “The dog ate my homework” and other common excuses. In an organization, too much tolerance can be a dangerous notion, mainly because without a clear line in the sand defining acceptable and unacceptable, a blurred line between success and failure follows. When you’re failing elegantly, for example, you tolerate “The dog ate my homework” and other classic excuses. No results plus a good excuse are presented in lieu of results—and tolerated. Massive amounts of energy are poured into sophisticated justifications and rationalizations for certain courses of action, and there is veiled blame for everything outside the team’s control.

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“What you want, and what the winner’s mindset demands, are insightful explanations for the gap between expected and actual performance,” says Hamm. “These are informed guesses—as informed and objective as they can be, untainted by the effort expended in dodging responsibility. There is tolerance of the simple fact that we don’t have control over every variable in the game, so at times—through either forces outside our influence or simply not having run our best play—the results are not as we wish.”

4. Allowing sloppiness and imprecision. The nice guy in you wants to avoid the perception of being a hardcore taskmaster and will politely look the other way, or catalog it away with some good-natured humor, allowing a corner to be cut, a report to be incomplete, or some shoddy work to pass as acceptable. Shoddy work and sloppiness almost always stem from being lazy or uncommitted or not having enough pride in the finished work.

“Leaders want to be good people, and they want to show others that they have the wisdom to accept human frailty,” notes Hamm. “So they allow themselves to tolerate a little sloppiness here and a little imprecision there in their subordinates’ work. But high reliability organizations never allow sloppiness, because they know it equals death. Unusually excellent leaders have a zero tolerance policy for sloppiness.”

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll analyze three more leadership mistakes, and introduce a valuable employee leadership training resource available now.