Even a good leader like you makes mistakes. But a good leader learns from each one, so we rarely make the same mistake twice.
Or do we?
In some recent research, I have been examining the mistakes that even successful leaders make, and the lessons they learn. I've come to understand that most individuals stumble over the same kinds of leadership tripwires, again and again. Even with the benefit of experience, reflection, feedback, data and coaching, they have made the same mistakes twice -- or more.
Why? There’s an important missing link between recognizing our vulnerabilities and anticipating when we might fall victim to them again. Here’s how you can build that missing link, and avoid making the same leadership mistakes twice.
Tripwires of leadership fall into three categories: tripwires of identity, tripwires of clarity, and tripwires of delivery. By far the biggest category, both in terms of frequency and impact, are the those of identity. These are triggered by who we are as people -- our own traits, characteristics, behaviors, perspectives, biases, idiosyncrasies. These characteristics include a long list of favorites: ego, defensiveness, will, desire to please, desire not to “rock the boat,” insecurity, compulsiveness, aggressiveness, passive-aggressiveness, perfectionism, impulsiveness, stubbornness, arrogance and hubris.
These traits cause other people to react in one or more of these five ways:
1. Resistance. People don’t exactly flock or jump to embrace your cause, your ideas, or your demands. They might challenge you directly or indirectly, and do their best to keep your initiatives from taking off.
2. Avoidance. Individuals master the art of forgetting, postponing, or ignoring your requests, hoping that this too shall pass.
3. Submissiveness. “OK, you’re the boss. You win. I’m tired of fighting this. Even if there is a clear case that it’s a bad idea.”
4. Deflection. People delegate your request to others, link it to other requirements, or tie it up in excuses.
5. Escape. They give up. Somehow, even in a difficult economy, they manage to find their perfect job elsewhere.
Here are four tools to help you avoid your own tripwires, and to prevent people from reacting to you in a negative way:
1. Get yourself a truth-teller. Not a coach. A truth-teller. This person might be a trusted colleague or peer, a member of the board (if you have one), or even an outside advisor. Try to avoid calling on family or loved ones for this role.
Prior to any big decision, ask them: “How are my least-helpful characteristics likely emerge in the upcoming situation? How can I avoid getting caught in bad “default” behavior?” Then, agree on a course of action. Stick to it. These last steps are critical; otherwise, it’s far too easy for you to rationalize your own reactions and behavior, and to lose the important objective edge you had gained. And you will trip again.
2. Know thyself. Pinpoint the specific characteristics that might get in the way. There are tons of diagnostic instruments out there to help you identify them, including Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), the Thomas-Killmann Instrument (TKI), and others with acronyms such as DISC, LIFO, and FIRO-B.
3. Speak up. Learn how to say: “This isn’t easy for me, so I’m going to do X to make sure we get this done successfully.” Learn how to say: “You have my explicit permission, and in fact you’re encouraged, to tell me when I’m behaving in a particular way, and when that behavior is causing problems.”
4. Build in consequences. One executive I know hired an extrovert to help compensate for, and overcome, her own default approach to wishy-washy communication. This was an expensive solution, making it difficult to ignore.
The first few times you use any of these will be difficult. But not as difficult as hitting the tripwire yet again.