How did that person get to be a leader?

As an HR manager, it’s amazing what people will tell you. Sometimes when a promotion notice was posted, employees would seek me out and ask, “How did that happen???”

It was particularly perplexing when the person in question was observed to be more talk than action. Or they were unreliable in making good on commitments. Maybe they were known for creating more work than necessary.

Who gets promoted?

I would get questions about how a specific person got a job with so much responsibility. I often thought to myself, “Because he or she is willing to do it when no one else is. And that's not necessarily a good thing.” Depending on the organization, there comes a time when the peer group at a certain level is not healthy. I've seen this. It's almost like the higher they go, the worse they get at being team players.

While in corporate America I’ve been in discussions about who would make a good leader. We identified people with real leadership potential. And yet, they had already made it known they didn't want anything to do with leading. They didn’t have the stomach for what it would take to work with troublesome would-be peers.

Why some leaders are so self-absorbed

One theory I have is what I call “The Jersey Shore” theory. I admit to never having seen an entire episode of the once popular reality TV show. But it occurs to me that at a certain level in the organization the same dynamics kick in. It’s as if you are a reality show star. You are so insulated. You view yourself as the center of the universe in a contrived environment.

On more than one occasion I tried to save a leader from him- or herself. I tried to help them understand how their approaches or messages were received. I wasn’t trying to talk them out of a decision, only the “how.” I observed pouting. I was ignored. Once I was verbally abused. You just can’t save some people from themselves.

What it takes to avoid this self-deception

Master coach Marshall Goldsmith wrote a book called, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” I remember applying his concept while coaching a particular dysfunctional leader. She regularly alienated just about everyone. She said she must have been doing okay if she got to the level she achieved. Her heels were dug in. She saw nothing to change. What Marshall’s concept would suggest is that she got promoted to her current level despite her flaws, not because of them. She couldn’t see that for herself.

As leaders, we must check ourselves. I come back to a component of emotional intelligence. To avoid self-deception, let’s look at empathy. You have to ask yourself if you are having the effect you are hoping for when you work with others. The empathy comes in when you look at your impact on others as compared to your intention. If this frequently doesn’t match up, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror, get some feedback, get a coach, or maybe even join the Lead Change Group!

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