What To Do When “Good” Leadership Fails

I have been reading leadership books for as long as I can remember, in addition to developing my own life experiences on the subject. Additionally, since the blogging and Internet era there are a fair number of posts, sites and discussion forums on the topic. With that said, I’ve seen or read very little on leadership failures.  Leadership is much more art than science and you can never discount how even the best of intentions are skewed through human involvement. At the end of the day we are talking about the application of principles in actual scenarios with other human beings. It is for this reason that you must consider the possibility of failure. Even the best application of theory falls short from time-to-time. How will you react when you are the leader on the negative end of the equation?

For the sake of the discussion, let’s call “good” leadership the proper application of known and accepted leadership principles, considered by many to be a “best-practice” through its use. The development of leadership skills is like the accumulation of tools in a work chest. You are the carpenter and with each new assignment or task you are presented with a challenge. You are skilled at what you do. In fact, that is why they hired you. With the task in hand you have to decide, based on your experiences, which tool applies to the many situations you will encounter on your way from point A to Z. Using the wrong tool can cause breakage, lasting damage to the overall team or project, or even outright failure. The fallout from failures can cause the team to lose focus, erode relationships among team members and make the leader question his or her abilities.

The application of good leadership principles has to be an iterative process.  As a leader you must sharpen the tools in your kit frequently (experience, books, lectures, seminars, they all help).  Additionally, the review cycle for any leader should contain a fair amount of introspective reflection (let this sink in a bit because if you’re not paying attention you miss this golden nugget).

Let’s first tackle the repetitive nature of the leadership cycle. You’ve been given your task, your team has been assembled (or already present – read The Immovable Roster – previous blog), you further define objectives, lay out the approach (using a consultative method), identify who is best for each aspect of the project, set the team to work, re-engage on a periodic basis to determine progress and ensure focus, achieve interim objectives and do it all over again until you reach the end zone.

The introspective portion of this process requires only one component, honest reflection on the part of the leader. Failures in leadership can be tough to stomach; especially when you feel like you’ve executed textbook like application of the principles. It’s the human component that ensures the possibility of hitting your target or missing it; sometimes with equal propensity. Like all adversity, the solution is in how you choose to react to any set of given variables.

What now lieutenant?

  1. Take time to identify which principles have missed the mark. Be honest with yourself, what could you have done better or differently? Mistakes rarely hide themselves.  Acknowledgement lessens the chance of the mistake reoccurring.
  2. Seek the advice of a trusted peer or mentor. Although many situations are unique sometimes you will find that other leaders have encountered similar scenarios. Their advice can help get your project back on course.
  3.  Identify what is working well and applaud the team for covering this ground with you. Lets reinforce the positives.
  4. Gather feedback from your team. If the intra-team relationships are good, oftentimes there’s a component of the feedback that holds water and can help you to re-focus the engagement. Gather their opinions in situations like this. They are on your team for a reason.
  5. Once you have taken time to embrace the mistakes, re-engage with your refined tools and focus on your original objectives.

Prior to each new assignment I frequently take steps one and four to heart in an attempt to ensure I don’t carry mistakes forward. It’s not always successful, but I endeavor to try.  Real leadership application is full of shipwrecks among the safely sailed voyages.

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