[November 02, 2014] Early lessons in leadership begin when we are children. That’s right … learning leadership skills begins early and develops over the course of our lives. For those of us who manage to stay “in the game” of leadership, we continue to improve on those skills as we age; getting better each time we learn something new. Not unlike junior leaders learning to function in their new jobs, young children struggle with the reality that some things, events, and people are more important than others. Knowing what really matters is critical for the development of those children and for leaders.
When there are no priorities, when everything is important, and when there is no tolerance for error, then there is no longer an ability to differentiate. The ability to separate the right course of action from the wrong, for example, sets leaders apart from others. This is something that we teach children and it’s something that we must master as we advance in leadership positions. Who has ever had a boss who could not set priorities, give clear guidance, or provide support for their teams? Perhaps all of us have been in this stressful situation. Those are the leaders who fail to understand what really matters.
When we think of spoiled children, what we are really thinking is that they have no ability to know what matters most in their lives. Everything they want is important and, as such, they cannot untangle it from their day to day lives. A commercial was on television the other day that showed a mother washing a pair of her teenage daughter’s blue jeans. The teenager was unaware of her mother’s act of kindness but when she found out about the washing, the teenager was devastated and told her mom, “my life is over.” The reason? The blue jeans would shrink to a point the teenager would not be able to put them on. A little exaggeration in the commercial, but the point is that even the smallest of things are so important to some children that they believe their well-being is based upon it. Their reactions are predictable.
We find this deficiency, not knowing what really matters, in leaders and its impact can be devastating. We’ve all heard of the Peter Principle that says that “managers rise to their level of incompetence.” I propose that leaders rise to a level that their ability to distinguish what is important from all the background clutter, fails them. For lack of experience, intelligence, or motivation … regardless of the reason, some leaders at some point are unable to distinguish those things, events, and people that are more important than others.
I’ve seen this occur in senior leaders when they no longer can distinguish the important from the insignificant. These leaders may be smart and hard working yet they fail their teams and their organizations when this occurs. When trouble occurs, that leader is more likely to “just do something” than to take the time to understand the issue and focus on what is truly needed. Those leaders often appear to act without logic and without consistency. They are no longer distinguishing between those things that matter. They may even act unethically, illegally, and immorally. Failure is the end result.
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