Leadership Deficiencies: Problems Often Start at Top

No leader wants to admit he or she is responsible for cultural or organizational problems, but often that’s exactly the case — organizations frequently reflect the character of the individual at the top.

No leader wants to admit he or she is responsible for cultural or organizational problems, but often that’s exactly the case — organizations frequently reflect the character of the individual at the top.

A CEO or other leader might even have blind spots that inhibit performance, but with executive coaching, 360-degree feedback and other development tools, blind spots and learned behaviors can be relearned for the individual’s (and organization’s) benefit.

“Many times, the heads of organizations, the CEOs who are often vilified in the news, tend to be brilliant, highly ethical people,” said Aaron Shaffer, Psy.D., Capital H Group senior consultant. “Obviously, there are people at either end of the spectrum, but I think as a general rule, CEOs have to be at a level above in intelligence, ethics and ability to influence and move others.

“At the same time, we’ve noticed some very interesting behavior patterns — these same brilliant CEOs that ascended to this rarified position also tend to make similar mistakes around attributing problems in the organization to people other than themselves. The CEO will say, ‘Well, we’ve got this issue: There’s a lot of infighting in my team, and we have a lot of turnover in the executive ranks. Can you come in and fix them?’”

Unfortunately, the CEO or leader pointing the finger might, in fact, be the problem — that person’s behaviors might be at the root of certain organizational maladies that have started at the top and cascaded down through the organization.

Further, because of the leaders elevated position in the organization, direct reports or even peers might be reluctant to voice concerns.

“For whatever reason, whether it’s because the CEO got to the level he got to because he was technical brilliant, had a high hit rate for coming up with the right answers for problems, questions and issues, now they’re at such a high level, much like a Hollywood starlet, no one is going to say no to them,” Shaffer explained. “No one’s calling them on anything, and they develop these massive, virtually impenetrable blind spots. It’s really hard to break that habit and try something different.”

Shaffer also said that often, the same qualities or behaviors for which leaders were rewarded on the way up are exactly the opposite of what they’ll be rewarded for now that they’re at the top. Autonomy, confidence, the ability to make quick, decisive decisions and produce direct action — all these levers might be off-limits now that leaders have to do things through direct reports.

The first thing the CLO can do to combat leadership blind spots is to build awareness. The CEO or leader has to be aware there’s something they’re doing, they’re wearing a lens or they’re exhibiting a behavior pattern that needs to be changed. Shaffer said awareness often filters through the leadership development program, where there’s an assessment element or a coach.

“We go in and say, ‘OK, here’s how people perceive you. We’ve developed and executed a 360, we’ve gotten feedback from all these different sources, and these are some of the issues we’re seeing,’” Shaffer said. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as doing something a psychometric like a Myers-Briggs either alone or with a team. Sometimes, that awareness is already there — things are going very poorly, and someone’s spouse, confidant or direct report has shared this with them. But 30 people can tell you there’s something wrong, and until you believe it and internalize it, you’re not going to move. You may even change the behavior, but as soon as pressure’s applied, you may revert back to the way you were before.

“The next step is perception of impact and ownership. The CLO is going to help guide and facilitate awareness and ownership and then give them the tools to address the issues or blind spots, and depending on what those are, offer steps to correct them.”

The tools to address leadership deficiencies include assessment, executive coaching and 360-degree feedback, which Shaffer said the CLO can select, develop or design to target not only the competencies of leadership in the company but what someone should and can be working on via leadership development.

“Your performance management system, if it’s doing its job, will reflect consistency over time, over jobs,” Shaffer said. “Get information as easily as you can — don’t overthink this. Executive coaching with the right coach has the opportunity to produce impressive results because you do have to work with someone on a day-to-day basis to help them form new habits.

“If you think something’s wrong with your car (things aren’t performing well, not quite braking well, gas mileage isn’t very good), the first thing you should do is turn off the radio and listen. Turning off the radio illuminates that noise in the organization. Then sit back and reflect. Few leaders do that these days. Break things down into small steps to undo the learning you’ve already got. Then, practice new skills until they become completely automatic. If the executives have energy doing these things, I think the changes come faster. If you can get them to practice with the radio off, ideally in a low-pressure situation, you can build habits before a pressure overlay makes it hard to learn anything. I encourage people to try new things outside of work — at church, with your family or in social situations where there’s low risk. This is where it ties into executive coaching: The coach can say, ‘OK, you bark out orders and expect people to respond.’ ‘How does that go for you?’ ‘Do you have kids?’ ‘How does that go when you try it with your kids?’ ‘My son hates me. ‘Kids go in the other direction. What do you see in your direct reports?’ ‘Well, kind of the same thing.’ ‘That’s interesting. What’s the common factor?’ ‘They’re not paying attention.’ ‘No, it’s you.’”