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10 Things Leaders Should Never Do

What causes executives and business leaders with great potential to self-destruct? Their own behavior.
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If you ask 10 CEOs, board directors, and VCs about the most preventable causes of failure for executives and business leaders, you'll probably get 10 different answers. Most will focus on lack of skills, capabilities, or experience.

In reality, the answer has nothing to do with abilities or experience. It's all about behavior.

Now, I'm not talking about the kind of failure we all experience over the course of our careers. In competitive markets, failure is inevitable. It comes with the territory. We gain confidence from success, but we gain wisdom from failure. It's a good thing.

I'm talking about failure that's preventable, that never had to happen, that's intrinsic to the individual, not a result of outside forces.

These are behaviors that executives and business leaders should always avoid. They don't just diminish your leadership ability, your presence, your credibility, your reputation. They will come back to haunt you and, ultimately, be your undoing.

Kowtow to the status quo. Granted, there are examples where the status quo works fine. If you're in the candy bar business and you've got a successful brand like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, you're probably good for a few decades. If not, inertia is your enemy. If you find yourself saying, "That's how we do it here," you're in trouble.

Whine. Few behaviors are less leader-like than whining, making excuses, pointing fingers, or playing the blame game. It shows a serious lack of maturity, self-confidence, respect, and accountability. And it's a very bad sign.

Deceive. The more comfortable you are being genuine, speaking your mind, and being straight with people, the better. Strive to be the best version of you, not someone or something you're not. Deceit is a slippery slope, and once you start down that path, sooner or later, it will come back to bite you.

Act like a dictator. I don't care how high up the ladder you are, you are not the boss. We all serve others. CEOs are appointed by their boards. Business owners have customers. The minute you start behaving like some sort of supreme leader, you can kiss your success goodbye.

Make empty threats. Confident, competent, mature leaders never make empty threats. It's tantamount to a child throwing a tempter tantrum. It destroys your credibility. Be decisive. Do what you say your going to do or don't say it in the first place.

Crave power. I'm always surprised when people who should know better talk about power like it's something to strive for. It's not. It's healthy to seek achievement and wealth. That's how we measure success. It's also how we grow companies and take care of our families. Power is for politicians and bureaucrats. In the business world, if you crave power, it will end badly.

Ignore the truth. There will always be weak-minded yes-men who sugar-coat the truth and tell you what you want to hear. But if you hire and listen to them, that's the same as looking in the mirror and seeing what you want to see. It's living in denial. And it's one of the most common causes of leadership failure.

Make commitments you don't intend to keep. Executives and business leaders who say what they mean and mean what they say usually have a bright future. And while some may achieve some measure of success by blowing smoke up people's you-know-what's, in my experience, it never lasts.

Be grandiose. I've seen and known lots of CEOs with grand visions for their companies that were not supported by anything remotely credible or logical and had no chance of succeeding. Their egos are so overinflated they think their magnificence alone can make it happen. Funny thing is, it never does.

Do what you know is wrong. Whether it's sacrificing principles for greed, cutting corners, or failing to do the right thing out of fear of repercussions, as with deceit, it's a slippery sloop. You might get away with it once or twice, but it will catch up with you. John Lennon called it "Instant Karma." I've seen it in action. It's real; believe me.

Last updated: Jul 12, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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