For subscribers only

The "Greatest" Leaders Are Often the Worst

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

“Unless you know the road you’ve come from, you cannot know where you are going” - African proverb

It is a common occurrence that a CEO leads a company to record earnings, retires, and in months, those once high-flying earnings are dropping like shot ducks.

Observers blame the new leadership team. But most likely, the observers are wrong. It is not just the new leaders who are screwing up. Instead, it was most likely the former CEO. Yes, the former, supposedly great CEO. Looking to him for what went wrong ó and what went wrong supplies lessons for leaders at all levels.

The reasons are clear but seldom recognized. They return to the foundation of leadership, which is not the performance of the individual leader but the continually improved results of those being led. The problems lie in the definition of results. When results are defined narrowly, i.e., in strict terms of share, margin, shareholder value, and profits, organizations lose their elasticity and impact.

And the quality of organizational elasticity is linked to its leadership culture, with a broader vision of results, encompassing the necessity to hire and develop people who lead others to get results.

So, when decline follows the departure of great leaders, the safe bet is that those "great" leaders have not hired and developed leaders ó, and so really, we’re not great at all, no matter what results they got. They were poor.

To paraphrase Vince Lombardi on winning, getting good leaders for your team is not everything; it is the only thing. The moment you decide to hire, that very moment, is your organization's living, breathing future.

Curious chemistry takes place in the hiring process. We do not just reach outward; we also go inward. In hiring leaders, we invariably engage ourselves with strengths and weaknesses. Hire to our strengths; we hire strong leaders. Hire to our weaknesses; we hire weak leaders. So, the hand we reach out to shake is not just the other person's hand; it is our hand.

I know a brilliant young executive in a multimillion-dollar manufacturing company whose ambition to become CEO may founder on his annoying propensity to hire leaders who may be good but are nonetheless not the absolute best.

That is because the leaders he hires must have an unstated but, at the same time, real skill: the ability to curry his favor. Those leaders are ostensibly qualified. But they are often not the absolute best in the pool because they come equipped with that extraneous skill.

Since results on his teams are also defined as the care and feeding of his ego, that executive is hiring to his weaknesses, so he continually makes what may ultimately turn out to be garbage-in-garbage-out hiring decisions that can wreck his ambitions.

On the other hand, I know another young executive, not nearly as brilliant, whose hiring dictum may get him farther along in life.

The mandate is: Hire leaders who can do well in this position in the following post and maybe even the work beyond that.

In other words, he hires to his strengths and his inner sense of self-confidence, which allows him to surround himself with people who are more innovative and, in some ways, more capable than he and so is creating a rising tide of action and results that will further his career in powerful ways.

As Steve Jobs said, "I don't hire people to tell them what to do but to tell me what to do."

You are yet hiring people capable of supplanting you are not enough. Do more. Actively develop those leaders' knowledge, skills, and careers to give them the best possible chance of replacing you.

An epitaph on a 1680 New England gravestone speaks to this: "What I gave, I have. What I spent, I had. What I left, I lost. By not giving it."

That can be an epitaph for failed leaders. By not giving to your leaders and not developing their skills and careers, you lose them and lose the opportunity to have their riches enrich you.

Nobody is a success unless others want them to be. And when you have an enthusiastic desire for their success, for helping them improve and achieve their goals, when they know that working on your team will be a defining experience of their career ó then you will have people who won’t like hell for you to be a success.

The decline following the departure of "great" leaders shows that those leaders were most likely control monsters, commanders, not convincers, great at getting jobs done themselves but not challenging and trusting others to do them.

And when those others are ignored, they become inept.

So, let us add a yardstick to our leaders and measure their total value, both when they are there and after they have left. The link deals with deferred compensation, bonuses, executive stock options, and partially delayed evaluations for middle managers and supervisors.

When leaders define their performance beyond their tenure, they will most likely pay more attention to those three necessary factors for any organization's continued well-being: getting, developing, and keeping exceptional leaders.

Subscriber content only

To access this content and all of our unlimited content subscribe now