Two months ago, I posted some lessons from DC. Because DC (and more accurately, the current occupant of the White House) continues to be the gift of organizational lessons that just keeps giving, this post provides some more lessons for every organization. We’ll call this the leadership edition.
There’s good leadership. There’s bad leadership. There’s truly atrocious leadership. There’s a failure of leadership. In all cases, leadership has a role in creating healthy workplaces. Healthy workplaces, regardless of waist-line sizes and the existence of lots of fruits and veggies, are places where employees thrive, feel valued, and are built on a system of fairness. They are also compliant workplaces.
Over the past few weeks, there have been some truly spectacular examples of atrocious leadership. A few examples are below. These examples demonstrate how a workplace can go off the rails and foster environments that are not compliant with the law.
Loyalty as blind devotion is bad. True loyalty to a leader and/or an organization means sharing opinions and taking action in the best interest of the organization – especially when the organization has made or is about to make a mistake. Loyalty has costs, and those costs can sink an organization. Take for example, Uber. When employees signed a petition to return former CEO Travis Kalanick, it was a signal that the culture at the center of Uber’s six-month catastrophe was an even bigger problem than a single individual. Potential fix: Define loyalty as raising voices to share problems and solutions.
Threats are bad. Leadership by threat is perhaps the worst kind of leadership. Employees in fear perform poorly. Potential fix: Build trust with employees. Let them try something and fail in a safe environment. You’ll be better for it.
Not recognizing and celebrating differences means there won’t be any. The value of inclusion has been rightfully gaining traction, not only because it has real benefits, but it is also where we’re going as a world. When we don’t recognize differences or choose to be “colorblind,” we automatically discount groups in the workplace. This drives employees out and makes it harder for us to find new employees. This will bring a workplace out of compliance with diversity under an affirmative action plan. Potential fix: Embrace (please, not literally) the diversity already exists in your organization and work towards building a more inclusive workplace.
Narcissism has more cons than pros. Narcissistic leaders, including Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bonaparte, and both Roosevelts, accomplish some great and not-so-great things. They have loyal (see above) followers, but their blind spots are huge and often spell their downfall unless checked by internal leaders, shareholders, employees, the press, and consumers. In fact, at least one study found that narcissism is a bad leadership trait. Potential fix: Encourage leadership to seek out different opinions and understand that the best ideas may not come from the leader.
Criticism in public is a mistake. The adage that leaders “praise in public, criticize in private” remains solid advice. When leaders publicly criticize their teams, they undermine the organization’s own progress. It may inspire the targets of that criticism to leave, but other leaders could look to leave too. Plus, it is not a good look. We don’t celebrate parents who eat their young, so why would we celebrate leaders who do the same? When an employee believes she has been criticized unfairly, she is more likely to bring a lawsuit. Potential fix: Handle differences and performance criticism behind closed doors. (Isn’t this HR 101?)
While I would really love to use DC as an example of a great organization doing right by its employees and customers (i.e. us), it looks like we’re in for more lesson learning.