Michael Shenkman

Article Summary:

Understanding successful leadership means understanding the sincere failures.

Successful Leaders: Understanding Sincere Failure

Leading is not an undertaking for the faint at heart. According to a recent Booz Allen study, more than 80% of businesses fail - and they all have a titular leader. There are many reasons why leaders fail, many out of their control. But there are other reasons that have to do with the leader. These leaders seem to have it all -- the right credentials, the business really takes off -- but they fail. They are pushed out by the board; too many people jump ship for the business to survive; a new leader comes in and makes a middling success a smashing success. These are the "sincere failures" of leaders who did their best, but something wasn't quite right.

As leaders progress through their careers, the reasons for sincere failures are different.

When a leader is starting out, the principle sincere failure is that of not creating followers. They have heard about the difference between managing and leading, for instance, but they don't really get it. They never realize that their vaunting expertise isn't what people are looking for- their people, after all, have expertise of their own, thank you. What they want from their leader is attention: They want their work to accomplish something and they want it known that they are accomplishing it. They'll stay and grow and contribute to an organization when they are valued, and the leader is the prime giver of that value.

The next level of sincere failure is that of the "charismatic" leader, who makes everyone feel like they matter, but they only matter if they matter to him. This is the leader who has a vision, who really is out to accomplish something big - but it's only about him. A leader's vision can have many sources, but to lead to lasting success, a vision has to come from the leader's values, the utterly implacable devotion of a leader to have something in the world be better for others.

A sincere failure at this level is one that mistakes ego for values. When a leader is making her values come to fruition, she will share it with everyone and anyone to make it happen, and is not concerned about taking credit, or getting rich. In fact, the leader working out of a set of values would do the work for free - and many do, if they can afford to. The leader who is in it for ego, wants it his way or no way, wants something out of it, and always sees the process as a zero sum game: If I don't get it, someone else will, so I am going to get it. This level of failure accounts for the mutual fund, Worldcom, Enron and Tyco scandals of recent years.

Finally, the few leaders who have left an imprint of themselves and their values on companies and on their slices of the world can experience the sincere failure of debilitating doubt. These seasoned, experienced leaders cannot see their own value, and what they as individuals bring into the world. Instead they too closely attribute their success to their managerial talent, their deft leader's touch, good luck or some other external factor. They are debilitated because what is being asked of them is to give more of themselves to larger and even more significant issues, but they don't feel qualified, able or as though they have the energy. It's the golf course for these folks.

It is a failure because these leaders have the potential to bring important things into the world and affect thousands of people. An example of a leader who transcended this failure is Jimmy Carter. He was horribly stung when driven from the presidency after only one term. But he knew his values and his leading - so he used them to form an organization for world peace that has saved lives and improved the quality of life for millions.

Sincere failures are the result of not taking on the task of personally growing into larger worlds and larger challenges. While they are deeply personal, we all suffer- especially the last two. Leading is a special privilege and responsibility offered to just a few. Those who step into this role also need to step out of their small lives into larger worlds of values, vision. They need to give to others from the vast well of their lives. They need to dare to lead greatly.

Michael Shenkman, Ph.D., is founder and president of the Arch of Leadership, a leader mentoring company. This article was adapted from his new book, The Arch and The Path, the Life of Leading Greatly (Sandia Heights Media, 2004) For more information, visit the Arch of Leadership Website.

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