With Martin G. Moore

Episode #68

The Price of Leadership Weakness: Your people suffer most

Strong leadership is rare, but incredibly valuable to people and organisations.

Unfortunately, with the amount of superficial, feel-good leadership content being peddled these days, you could be forgiven for thinking quite the opposite. For many, leadership has deteriorated into a quest to ‘make people happy’.

Many leaders then begin to believe their own bullish!t. They misinterpret superficial contentment as productivity, and limited achievement in an undemanding environment as high performance.

This episode contrasts strong and weak leaders, exposing the high price of leadership weakness.

To take your learnings on this topic even further, download the free ‘Strong V. Weak Leader Checklist’ that I’ve put together below.

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Episode #68 The Price of Leadership Weakness: Your people suffer most

What do I mean when I talk about strong leadership? Well, let’s start with what strong leadership isn’t. It’s not about being tough. There’s a really big difference between being strong and being tough. A strong leader has a thick skin and a soft heart. A tough leader has a thin skin and a hard heart. I’m sure you’ve all come across plenty of both.

Being a strong leader is not about being uncaring. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The strongest leaders are the ones who care the most for their people. I remember a number of years ago when I was touring the U.S. with DuPont a gentleman I met running one of the plants there, who’s probably one of the strongest leaders I’ve ever met. He was also one of the most caring leaders I’ve ever met. He ran a plant in Delaware

Sitting down and talking to him about his leadership and philosophy about safety of these people was quite eye-opening. What he said is, “I love my people. I love them so much that I won’t allow them to get hurt. Every day, they should go home better than they’ve walked in. So yes, they have to go home physically intact. But also, they should have made some money, they should have furthered their social relationships with their peers, and they should have had some sort of impact and feel a sense of achievement.” This was what he strove to do for each and every individual that walked into the plant.

But when it came to the safety of those people, he was emphatic. What he said was, “If I assess that one of my people can’t work safely, or isn’t interested in working safely and following the rules … then I love them so much, I will love them right out the door. Because I won’t let them be put in a situation where they put themselves or their workmates at risk.” Now, that is strong leadership. But it is also caring leadership, because he cared so deeply about what happened to an individual he couldn’t watch them being a situation where they were potentially at risk.

Another misconception about strong leadership is it is actually devoid of emotion. Once again, it’s quite the opposite. And we’ll get to this in a little more detail further on this episode. Strong leadership is absolutely not about bullying, or being disrespectful, or being demeaning. There is absolutely no place for that in any workplace. If a leader is doing that and saying, “I’m just being a strong leader,” they are full of shit. Strong leadership is not directive. The command and control model, which has never really worked, is going to be even less effective as the way we work continues to evolve.

Strong leadership doesn’t overly rely on the use of legitimate power. And if you go way back to episode five of No Bullshit Leadership, we did an episode called ‘Using Power Wisely.’ It’s really worth going back and having listen to that if you haven’t heard it in a while.

I’m now going to spend some time contrasting what strong leaders are as opposed to what weak leaders are, and how you recognise the signs both in yourself and others. I’m going to have this as a downloadable at the end of the episode that you can take from our website, because I think just having this sense of what makes you strong and what makes you weak is really worth keeping front of mind.

Let’s start with strong leaders. Strong leaders are strong enough to make difficult choices. They don’t seek to find a weak inferior driven by consensus to try to keep everybody happy. That would just be supporting their own conflict aversion. They’re not driven by doing the most popular thing, and they don’t try to compromise and pander to people’s opposition if they know that the choice needs to be made. They are strong enough to make those choices.

Strong leaders are strong enough to do what’s right, not what’s easy. They absolutely don’t follow the path of least resistance. Now, this requires a level of self awareness. Because when we talk about doing what’s easy, rationalisation rules. No leader wants to think that they’re taking the easy way out. so they find all sorts of reasons to justify their inaction. Most people make decisions emotionally, and then build a set of rational explanations for why the decision they’ve just made is the best one. But typically, we know deep down. It’s not like we’re getting away with anything when we do this either, because poor decisions are punished accordingly. Weak leaders who make weak decisions are ultimately not going to be successful. If you keep getting overlooked for promotions and opportunities, have a really good think about this one.

Strong leaders understand the maxim. You cannot please everyone, so you may as well just do what’s right. Strong leaders are strong enough to stop focusing on themselves and focus on their people. Once you choose to take the focus off yourself and give your people what they need, I’ve got to tell you, this leadership caper becomes infinitely easier. You have to be strong enough to really embrace this. For example, feedback for one of your people who needs it is a classic example of this. Strong leaders aren’t worried about how it might be for themselves. They know it’s best for the individual, so they put aside the risk that they won’t be liked for having the tough conversation. They don’t allow themselves to be distracted by the rationalisations, like, “What if I gave Kevin the honest feedback he needs, and then he gets de-motivated?” Strong leaders never see that withholding feedback can be a good outcome. It robs someone of the opportunity to improve.

Strong leaders are strong enough to demand the best from every individual, and then let them make their own choice. Strong leaders simply aren’t afraid to do this. They know how powerful it is for the individual and for the team. Once again, we often don’t stretch our people, because we’re afraid they might think we’re too hard on them and then not like us. But in this case, we’re robbing them of the opportunity to taste real victory.

Strong leaders are strong enough to take accountability for everything that happens on their watch. We see this time and time again: leaders who blame others when things go wrong, or they say, “I didn’t know about it. It’s not my fault.” Well, suck it up, cupcake. You want the title, you want the money … well, you own the outcomes.

Let’s think about what weak leadership looks like. Now, we’ve probably seen a hell of a lot more of this than we have strong leadership. Weak leadership is characterised by what leaders are not prepared to do. What they’re unwilling to do. Their weakness shows through, because they aren’t strong enough to align their actions and their beliefs. Now, they’re not bad people. But I’ll tell you what, it’s pretty easy for them to look like hypocrites.

Weak leaders are unwilling to push back on the boss. Even when directions come down from above that don’t make sense, or the people in your team know better, you don’t push back. It stops you from putting forward any contrary ideas. Now, this can be exacerbated by a weaker insecure leader above who just wants a team of yes men and women. Weak leaders are unwilling to put the team’s interests ahead of their own. So, the team gets buffeted around by all sorts of forces. But the boss is playing a political game. Remember, if you’re in it for yourself, your people will never be in it for you ever.

Weak leaders are unwilling to set ambitious goals, because they don’t want to be seen to not deliver something. They stay super conservative and then they talk up how great they are. They over celebrate the most minor of achievements. This breeds mediocrity. It’s a cancer. Weak leaders are unwilling to challenge coaching in front. Challenging coaching in front is a leadership staple. It’s the basis of your toolkit. We dedicated episode 57 of No Bullshit Leadership to this, because it’s so important. If you haven’t listened to that or if you haven’t heard it for a while, go back and get that under control.

This is all about stretching your people, getting the most out of them, and letting them feel what victory really tastes like, providing feedback on how they’re going. And making them uncomfortable is always part of the parcel of this process. But you have to put the appropriate rewards and consequences in place to get people to bring out their best. Weak leaders simply won’t do this.

Weak leaders are unwilling to challenge the status quo and the bad habits to the organisation. So, they’ll spend time trying to justify why change isn’t necessary rather than constantly seeking to improve. Instead of raising the bar to set a new standard, they drop the bar to meet the existing standard.

What’s the price of leadership weakness? Well, basically leadership weakness leads to organisational weakness, because the organisation can’t perform under a weak leader. Weaker means less competitive. Now, most organisations compete in some way, shape, or form. But a week or less competitive organisation threatens the long-term viability and sustainability of the organisation itself. This is a big deal.

People working at the lowest level of the organisation fail to see the cause and effect, so they can be excused for just doing what they do. But it requires a leader to step in over the top to carry that burden on their people’s behalf. When weak leaders avoid the work, the workforce actually takes over. You end up with the inmates running the asylum, and change becomes nearly impossible. For example, if you have a workforce that’s campaigning constantly for higher wages … now, I’m not talking about the oppressed masses. There are certain industries and businesses out there where the workers are truly exploited and truly deserve more money. I’m talking about highly paid union backed militant workforces.

There is a constant grab for more money for less hours, and there’s a massive culture of entitlement, not accountability. I’ve worked in a few of these businesses, so I’m speaking from bitter experience. It’s really hard to outpace the decline in labour productivity with an uplifting productivity due to other factors, such as innovation and technology. This really comes back to hurt the organisation over time. Eventually it will lead to job cuts, big redundancies, and restructures. In some cases, the organisation can’t survive. At the end of this decline though, when a business is forced to close, workers will always blame management. In fact, they’re probably right. Just not for the reason they think they’re right.

Strong leaders would have found the balance for the long-term sustainability of the organisation, and fought hard to keep the company strong. Weak leaders would go with the flow, allowing decline to accelerate and eventually take hold. The classic example, when we talk about privatisation of a government owned asset, is predicated on the fact that those businesses are fat, dumb, and happy. A leader’s job is to capture the value for new owners. It’s better for the customer, it’s better for the people inside the organisation, and it’s better for the economy.

Strong leaders make this happen and the organisation improves. Weak leaders avoid the issues, and stick their heads in the sand. Let’s face it, there’s no standing still in today’s business environment. If you’re not going forward, you are going backwards.

Let’s look at the impact of weak leadership on your people. Weak leaders never give their people the taste of real success. They try to protect them and cocoon them, because they think it’s the best thing for them. Well, it’s not. It might make everyone feel good, and it might make sure that everyone likes you because you’re not pushing them too hard, but it’s ultimately destructive.=

Now, I don’t use a parenting analogy very often, but here we go. My primary goal in raising my daughters was to get them to a place where they were strong and independent. From here, I figured they’d have half a chance of being really happy. As I look them today, they’re both all of those things. But I had to teach them to be resilient, because I’m not going to be around forever to protect them. I had to let them suffer a little, work things out for themselves without diving into rescue them, and help them to grow their resourcefulness and their capacity for dealing with life. Without this resilience and capacity to adapt, they would be fearful, unsure, and at the mercy of their environment.

Now, your team is the same. You make them strong by being a strong enough leader to ask them to step up, and perform, and to let them do that for themselves. Setting soft targets won’t do it either. The scars have now sufficiently healed for me to use this next analogy. The Australian rugby union side is called the Wallabies, and the World Cup of Rugby is contested every four years by 20 nations. In rugby, there are many strong nations, but some developing ones are a little weaker.

For example, in the world cup just gone, Australia defeated Rugby Minnows Uruguay by 45 points to 10. This hardly raised a cheer from the Wallaby supporters or the team. Why? Because the win over Uruguay was totally expected. However, when the Wallabies defeated New Zealand All Blacks, arguably the greatest rugby nation on the planet a few months earlier, by 45 to 26 … it was celebrated as one of the most incredible wins in living memory.

What’s the point to all this? The team knows. They know whether they’re playing Uruguay or New Zealand. Their sense of accomplishment is tempered accordingly. Weak leaders are only prepared to line up against Uruguay. Now, I know we have a bunch of listeners in Uruguay, so big shout out to you, and no offence meant. Sadly, you’re one of the few nations that Australia can still defeat, at least for the moment.

Finally, what’s the impact on you if you’re a weak leader? Well, we know what it does to the organisation and your people. The only way for you to reconcile this is to rationalise, and then you start to believe your own bullshit. But the spectacular results will elude you. You miss opportunities and become bitter. You may fail in a role, or you may find yourself being caught up in restructures more often than can be called coincidence. One thing’s for sure though, you won’t enjoy leadership. You will feel at the mercy of the elements. It can’t be any other way when you have no means of asserting your position, or pushing back on those around you … above, beside, or below.

Every time you actually have to do something hard as a leader … and let’s face it, there’s always going to be something hard you can’t avoid. Eventually you will hate the experience. You’ll procrastinate for as long as you can, and when you finally do it, you will face it with dread, and you will be really bad at it.

Strong leaders love to lead. They see the benefits for everyone around them. Even when some people are pushing back, they believe in the value that strong leadership brings. They know that the noise is temporary, but the benefits they create will live well beyond their time in the role. Strong leaders are prepared to do what’s right and what’s needed at any point in time. Ultimately, isn’t that what a leader is paid to do?


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