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Become a better leader: change your mindset

June 27th, 2013

By Allan Maurer

book coverYears ago I worked for an organization where the prevailing management style operated by fiat: they gave orders, everyone else followed. The CEO and his chief manager had significant strengths that brought them to their high level positions, but their management skills were so poor the company board had them take a consultant’s remedial program. They scored 15 percent on an initial evaluation of their management skills.

Have you ever worked for a strong leader who overwhelmed those around him (or her) so that people would tend to just agree with him rather than offer their own best ideas or constructive criticism?

Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser, whose book Fear Your Strengths was recently featured in The Economist, say that most executive clients don’t know what subterranean forces impede their effectiveness. One of the most debilitating forces—anxiety—can trigger a dysfunctional tendency to control too much.

You know them

“You know these leaders,” the authors say. “They fill their own space and yours too. They have a lot to say and feel free to say it. Up to a point it’s justified—they often have a lot to offer. But when conversational space gets dominated, the energy goes out of the room. Team members stop speaking up and stop listening. What over-controlling leaders think of as helping, team members experience as meddling. Their power has been usurped.”

That remedial course didn’t help the managers of the organization I mentioned: its leaders both lost their positions, largely due to their no longer acceptable management styles, within two years. They simply could not alter how they led.

What causes this dysfunctional attitude among leaders with extensive experience and considerable personal ability and even charisma?

Kaplan, President of Kaplan DeVries Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in intensive assessment of executives for coaching and succession planning, says, “Mindset is at the core of behavior. Who you are is how you lead.”

How can a leader fix that?

Work on your mindset

Kaplan says you have a much better chance of success if you don’t just work on your behavior but also on your mindset. For example, to rein in over-control, leaders must fight through instinctive defenses and admit to a motivation they wish they didn’t have, such as anxiety, and then to form a new mental habit (I don’t have to prove myself because my team knows I’m smart) to go with the new outward habit (give other people space to lead).

In their book, Kaplan and Kaiser, who conducted thousands of assessments of senior executives to determine when their strengths may betray them, found that In a well-intentioned effort to build on the strengths that propelled them to the top, leaders can take those positive attributes too far and undermine their effectiveness.

They say “It’s no wonder that the concept of strengths overplayed is overlooked in leadership development. Our culture’s growth mentality seems founded on the belief that if some is good, a lot must be great. This thinking is reinforced daily as leaders get evaluated with five-point rating scales where higher scores are more desirable. Neither our beliefs nor our tools warn leaders that more is not always better.”

Kaplan and Kaiser assess leaders by asking colleagues whether the leader does too much, the right amount, or too little of a given behavior relative to their job and organization. Feedback in this form is both insightful and instructive: “The practical fact is that the only way to manage your strengths is to accept them,” the authors write. “If you literally don’t know your own strength, you have no way to calibrate or modulate it. In a relentless effort to be better, you have no way of knowing if you are going too far.”

Kaplan and Kaiser offer practical ways to combat common mindset traps that inevitably detract from managerial effectiveness in their book, Fear Your Strenths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem.

The authors discuss this problem in this video.


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