The Reason So Many Executives Fail


You can’t be selfish and a good leader at the same time.

What a shock I had a few weeks ago when I realized that my leadership skills may have gone downhill over the past 15 years. Recently, and quite by accident, I came across a paper that I had written for a leadership class when I was working on my MBA back in 2000. When I wrote that paper, I had just gone through a major crisis at the company I was working for. I’ll spare the details of the near-death situation, but the essence of the problem was no cash, too few sales and too many invoices. As with all major crises, though, there was some upside. The company survived, and it forced me to be a much better leader than I was actually ready to be.

I remembered how euphoric I felt when I wrote that paper and the total love and commitment I felt for my team at the time. We had been through hell, fought side by side in the foxhole — and survived. From a leadership perspective, it was one of the best times in my career. But my recent re-read made me realize the harsh reality that over these past 15 years, I may have lost my way on the leadership trail. What suddenly became clear to me is that being a leader is not something that one attains once and for all at some a point in time. In reality, leadership is a practice that has to be worked on and renewed daily.

Let’s face it. A lot can happen to an executive over the course of 15 years, especially these days when corporate lifecycles and paces of change are so rapid. Between working for different companies, different cultures, mergers, layoffs, management changes and corporate strategy changes, I had become too focused on myself. I forgot one of my core beliefs — that you can’t be selfish while also being a good leader. More importantly, the fact remains that the most rewarding times I’ve had as a professional have been associated with being a part of and leading teams who are committed to each other and to achieving a goal. All of this soul searching has reminded me of the following:

  1. As a leader, every day is all about the team. You cannot do the work that needs to get done alone. If the team is having a good day, then you are having a good day. If the team is having a bad day, it’s up to you to make sure that the team has a good day. When times are tough, sometimes all you can do is help the team put things in perspective, highlight a lesson that comes from a failure, or take them out for a cocktail. Try to give them a reason to come back to work the next day.

  2. The whole point in having a team is to rely on them, let them make decisions, grow and be accountable. Try to guide in a way that makes good decisions likely, even though it won’t always work. If someone on your team makes a bad decision, you’re accountable to help him or her get things back on track. There’s nothing like working through a disaster to bring a team together. But more importantly, from my experience, having distributed decision making is what drives people to be invested in the company. It connects their individual work to the success of the company.

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