Avoiding the perils of an accidental leader

Jul 25 2014 by Graham Jones Print This Article

Sustainability and longevity as a leader has never been in more precarious. Minute scrutiny, performance reviews, competency ratings and 360 degree feedback are just a few of the metrics used to shine a spotlight on individual leadership performance. This is exacerbated by an ever-demanding world in which delivering the numbers alone is no longer sufficient to satisfy key stakeholders; the results delivered, often with less resource, must be both socially-responsible and sustainable.

Herein lies the greatest challenge facing organisations and the leaders and teams working within them. Delivering a one-off top performance is comparatively easy. Delivering it time and time again is a very different proposition!

This problem is exacerbated by the mistake most organisations make in promoting people to leadership positions because they are good at what they do. Good accountants, lawyers, bankers, engineers, scientists, etc, find themselves moving up through the organisation because of what they have achieved to date using their functional skills, experience and expertise. But many of these ‘accidental’ leaders are ill-equipped to deal with the visibility, exposure and the daunting challenge of inspiring their people. Some of them might not actually want to be leaders in the first place!

This is where the motives and mindsets of leaders are critical in determining their impact and tenure. My experience of coaching and working with numerous senior leaders across a broad array of organisations has led to the realisation that there are two broad sets of motives for being a leader that drive different behaviours and lead to different impacts on organisations. These two sets of motives and behaviour characterise two types of leader: ‘real leaders’ and ‘safe leaders’.

Real and safe leaders exist on a continuum. At one extreme, safe leaders are driven so much by their needs for rewards and the status and power that comes with being ‘the boss’ that they are unwilling to put themselves on the line because of the threat of losing their position if they get it wrong.

Safe leaders keep their heads out of the firing line, they are risk-averse and there is little or no innovation and challenging orthodoxy during their tenure since their focus is almost exclusively on micro-managing the short term, often through exerting their status as ‘the boss’.

At the other extreme, real leaders are driven much more by the challenge and opportunity to put themselves out there and make a difference; this is what leadership is about for them. Real leaders are highly visible and make things happen. Their focus is much more on the future and the opportunities that lie ahead. They encourage challenge, innovation and risk-taking, as well as tackling hard issues as soon as they arise.

A recent survey conducted by Top Performance Consulting revealed some disturbing findings in the context of real and safe leadership:

  • Half of the employees we surveyed said that their leaders ‘play it safe’.
  • More than half said that their leaders encourage conformity to tried-and-tested methods rather than challenging accepted ways of doing things.
  • Two thirds said that their leader does not make the necessary changes when top performance is not being delivered.
  • Nearly four out of 10 complained that their leaders are slow to address underperformance or don’t address it at all.

So how does all this tie in with those accidental leaders who find themselves in positions they are either inadequately prepared and equipped for or do not want anyway? The key is that they have a choice to make between being real and being safe. And the data from the survey suggests that too many are opting for the safe route.

For those who have the courage to choose the real option, and for those safe leaders whose conscience tells them to reconsider, what are the qualities required? Becoming a real leader demands a mindset and behaviours that include:

  • accepting accountability when things go wrong
  • having the confidence to let go
  • being willing to make mistakes
  • having the courage to make and own tough decisions
  • having the conviction to do the ‘right thing’
  • focusing on creating a road map for the future
  • accepting the responsibility to drive change
  • being comfortable with the visibility of being a good role model
  • striving for continual personal growth and learning

This mindset and associated behaviours means that these leaders must possess a resilient self-belief and be able to maintain motivation when things are tough. They must be able to remain in control when the pressure is at its most ferocious, staying focused on the things that matter and harnessing thoughts and feelings so that they remain positive. Bouncing back from setbacks and learning from mistakes are also crucial in becoming real leaders.

So how do accidental leaders become real leaders? The mindset and behaviours described earlier are not things that are easily learned in formal leadership development programmes. Instead, they can be nurtured and proactively developed ‘on the job’ via a variety of means.

Creating and communicating visions to their teams. This ensures they are proactive in focusing on the future and, by going public on it with their team, become visible and ‘own’ it.

Setting goals that that are clearly aligned to this vision and will drive their day-to-day leadership behaviours. These should be in the form of process goals around ‘how to be’ as opposed to ‘what to do’ as a leader.

Seeking impactful developmental feedback on a regular basis rather than once a year during performance reviews.

Finding a challenging coach who has permission to push them outside the boundaries of their safety zone, encouraging risk-taking, making the tough decisions they have been avoiding and getting them to think beyond what they believe has worked in the past. The coach should also support their development of mental toughness to enable these leaders to thrive on the pressure that comes with being a real leader.

Finding opportunities to lead cross-functional workstreams that are focused on change initiatives.

Finding ways of having a voice in the organisation by gaining access to the most senior leaders.

These are just some of the ways that ‘accidental’ leaders can develop into the ‘real’ leaders that will sustain them during times of pressure and uncertainty. Tailoring this on-the-job development to meet specific personal needs will obviously have an even greater effect on leadership impact and longevity.

About The Author

Graham Jones
Graham Jones

Graham Jones is the Managing Director of Top Performance Consulting and Professor of Elite Performance Psychology at the University of Wales, Bangor. He has over 20 years experience of performance consulting and has worked with Olympic and World Champions as well as FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 business leaders.