Why Even the Most Capable Leaders Fail, and How to Level Up Your Potential
After six months of executive coaching, my rockstar client was ready and eagerly anticipating her next role. Unfortunately, she had one thing holding her back. Her talented second-in-command wasn’t ready. Since my client’s promotion hinged on her successor’s ability to step up, she had been giving her successor substantial feedback and exposure. But some things have to come from one’s successor. Sure, you can only develop someone but leadership is ultimately a way of being, an art form, and passion.
My client’s concerns about her successor–a talented manager with a lot of potential–aren’t unique. Many talented managers stumble as they get closer to the top for three simple reasons.
Overscheduling is the new normal. We drive ourselves into the ground by trying to do too much with too little time. In the process, we often overlook how overextending ourselves is sabotaging our promotability. When we overschedule, we cut our safety net. When you’re booked from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm, for example, there is virtually no downtime. There is also no bandwidth to deal with even minor emergencies. When we overschedule will also make another fatal error: We replace strategic thinking with frenetic doing. This is bad for anyone but it can be particularly dangerous for leaders.
Here, it is useful to return to the case of my client’s second-in-command. Recently, she stepped up to engage in two major projects. She said she wanted the exposure and experience. While my client isn’t questioning her #2’s ambitions, my client saw this as bad judgment. If the second-in-command can manage to juggle both projects, it will be an amazing win. If she can’t, she’s compromising both projects and others will suffer as a result. Also, chances of both projects not working out are high since she’s left herself no safety net. As my client noted, “If she can’t see this is a bad idea, she isn’t ready for a promotion.”
By contrast, my friend Ramya, the CEO of an alternative energy company, only schedules herself at 80%. As she explained, in her position, you need to be certain you can respond to anything that hits your desk. Scheduling at 80%, rather than 100%, leaves her 20% and makes her more agile and reliable on the job. But this isn’t to say Ramya only uses her extra 20% for “overflow” work.
Rather than let this 20% become eaten up by overflow, she uses this time to check in on her team. She also uses this time to think deeply, catch loose balls, and rejuvenate. This makes her more present, focused, and impactful the other 80% of the time. This is when she is able to see the forest through the trees and more effectively engage her work and her team.
By scheduling at 80%, Ramya also avoids many of the bandwidth issues that plague other leaders. Bandwidth management helps you focus on what matters and directs your focus. Ramya’s extra 20% means she always has the bandwidth she needs to be at her best when it matters most.
Failing to Get Perspective
Imagine life is like a dance floor. Overscheduled, we pivot from tango to salsa to the waltz and sometimes, into slam dancing. And, we do all this with little time to recover and barely enough time to think of where we’re going and with whom.
Adaptive leadership is about the ability to step back and get perspective. It is about being more effective and impactful. It is also about the ability to get off the dance floor and onto the balcony from time to time to get perspective and make better choices. Sure, when you step off the dance floor, you’re catching your breath, but it’s also a chance to see who else is on the floor with you. For leaders, this is essential.
In the case study already mentioned, I introduced an upcoming executive who failed to get perspective on her commitments. This is someone who can’t assess the cost of taking on too much. It’s also someone failing to think about the ramifications for her team.
Of course, it is sometimes hard for leaders to move from doing and managing projects to strategic thinking. Unconsciously, we gravitate towards those things that are safe, familiar, and accessible. But leadership is more abstract. This is why lacking perspective, most leaders stumble.
Overvaluing IQ at the Expense of EQ
If management is about getting things done, leadership is about how you get the right things done in the right way. This requires IQ and EQ.
IQ is essential to developing the capacity to execute on the job. EQ, a combination of self-awareness and interpersonal agility, is essential to delivering with impact.
My client’s second-in-command is a classic case of someone who over-values her capacity to “get things done.” She is great at meeting deadlines but demonstrates a lack of awareness about potential risks and implications for others. This likely reflects an under-developed EQ. The problem is that leaders get paid the “big bucks” to do the right things in the right way, especially under duress.
People with insight, interpersonal agility, and the ability to weigh risks get promoted to leadership roles. Those who are looking for a checklist (i.e., what do I need to do and how) often fail. Working on yourself and developing your capacity to deliver the what and the how is vital at the leadership level. You must also have the capacity to build a team who can step in to seamlessly fill your void as needed.
At AIM Leadership, we have developed a proprietary online assessment to help executives map what they need to execute upon to be promoted. We also help future leaders determine who they need on their side to “level up.” Overscheduling, lack of perspective, and undervaluing EQ are three of the most common obstacles to leadership.