Last week, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong was forced to issue an apology for singling out two employees as specific examples while explaining changes in the company's health care policy (he also reversed the change in the policy). This wasn't the first time Armstrong has had to plead mea culpa. In mid-2013, he was caught on tape publicly firing an employee for videotaping a meeting, and subsequently apologized.
It's notable that all of this--the dumb firing over a petty matter and the cavalier use of distressing personal circumstances to justify a policy change--garnered a ton of publicity at a time when AOL has a ton of real, pressing issues to deal with (including the disposal of the Patch subsidiary, a particular bee in Armstrong's bonnet).
What's going on here? Well, a lot of things, obviously, but at one level it's a particularly acute example of something that does all of us a giant disservice. That's the distressing trend of the media, desperately in search of ways to fill a yawning 24/7 business-news cycle, blithely reporting anything vaguely noteworthy by senior executives as if it were a reflection, for good or ill, on their leadership skills.
The simple fact is, not everyone in a position of leadership is a leader. I could call myself a policeman or a heart surgeon, but that doesn't make it so. And when the board of some company--even a publicly traded one--sticks someone into a position of leadership, they're taking a gamble that they're right. Sometimes the gamble works, and the individual proves to be, or develops into a true leader, and sometimes we all get to see that they aren't cut out for the role.
The issue isn't spotting the clear winners or losers. The problem comes when a non-leader, through simple longevity in a position, becomes accepted, discussed, and used as a model for real leadership. That's when things get gnarly and (sadly) many younger wanna-be leaders begin to emulate decidedly un-leader-like traits.
Here are my top three examples of types of executives who aren't leaders, no matter who says so, how long they've been at the helm, or even how profitable their company is:
Clever can start a lot of businesses. Clever can make a boatload of money. But clever doesn't necessarily translate into leadership.
2. The Ranter. Being able to conjure up a perfect storm of energy, self-belief, and sheer volume doesn't actually achieve anything in and of itself. At some point, you have to take people with you. And you know what, that might mean dropping the self-belief and learning to believe in (and trust) others.
3. The Manager. Being a good manager--even a great one--doesn't necessarily make you a leader. It can certainly help, but you can bring all the management skills in the world into a situation that requires leadership, and it won't make a button of difference.
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