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What Happens When Leaders Fail to Lead?

Here is the key to leader success (and failure).

An old adage about managers vs. leaders says that "managers do things right and leaders do the right thing." So, leadership is about doing the right thing - and it should always be about that. There should never be any exceptions to that rule, because that is when leaders fail.

A good example occurs often in politics. An elected leader knows what is the right thing to do, but wavers from that path because taking the right course may alienate some voters and hurt the politician's chances for reelection. You can't lead effectively if your actions are motivated by staying in power, rather than taking the right actions.

Since the recent financial meltdown, we are seeing many leaders failing to lead. Rather than doing the right thing, they are doing the "financially prudent" thing (or the "cheap thing") - putting costs ahead of strategic leadership. I hear it all the time: "We simply can't afford to take any risks in this financial climate. When things get better, we will move forward." Although finances need to be taken into account, to completely change the focus of the leadership - to make it all about the money - is a path to failure.

A while back, I was asked for leadership advice by an "interim" head of an organization - an individual who would hold the position for a year or so while the company mounted a search. My advice was, "forget about the word ‘interim.'" In other words, don't let the condition of being a temporary leader keep you from moving forward and from doing the right thing (after all, all leaders are "temporary").

Of course, a key is that the leader needs to be aware of what "the right thing" is. Take the Hurricane Katrina disaster. President Bush's inaction was likely due to either the paralyzing effect of not knowing the correct path (saving lives and alleviating suffering), or to political considerations. In any case, it was a dismal leadership failure.

So, leadership is about doing the right thing. It is related to staying on the right path (a path that can be guided by the leader's character and resolve) and not getting distracted by the desire to stay in power, by transient conditions, or by constraints of time or money (a great deal can be achieved in a short amount of time and on a restricted budget).

More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
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