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The Sins of Leaders

This is an excerpt from the book Why Teams Don't Work by Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, posted on the website in 1995. This site no longer exists, but archives of its pages are available at the Web Archive. I have reproduced it here (tweaking only the formatting) because I believe it is a very important document.

Date: Mon, 8 May 95 21:26 CDT
From: Michael Finley
Subject: Re: The Leadership Essay

This is an excerpt about team leaders from WHY TEAMS DON'T WORK. The book in its entirety looks at fourteen dimensions teams struggle with – leadership issues, clarity on goals and roles, problems involving human nature, etc. To get the full text, you may order the book from Peterson's, 1-800-338-3282.

The Sins of Leaders…
how leaders kill teams they are trying
their best to lead

A networked excerpt from: WHY TEAMS DON'T WORK What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right, by Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley

A book for anyone who is on a team and wondering when it will stop tripping over itself and start producing.

Copyright 1995 by Harvey Robbins & Michael Finley
All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without written permission from the authors.

Leadership is the tiredest word in organizational literature. It bears the burden for so much of every organization's hopes. Everyone agrees that “leadership” is vital to teams, the chlorophyll that permits the making of sugar. But what is it, exactly, and how does a team without it, get it?

When a team is in trouble, its leadership is very often the problem. One of the best ways to understand leadership is by seeing what happens when it isn't there. It isn't pretty:

Things aren't happening. Managers resort to a machine approach to getting work out the door. “When in doubt, automate.” People are upset, disillusioned, hostile to their own enterprise. If work does get done it has a predictable character – it is half-assed. There is genuine despair among the team because there is no rallying point, no one to vent at, no one to intercede when things go awry and get everyone back on track.

Team members get angry at one another; eventually they either explode in anger or implode in despair. Or worst of all, they decay in a lifeless orbit. Commitment and energy drain away. Slowly, individuals begin to drift away from the team. By the time the team figures out it is dead, it is really dead.

Can you “fix” poor leadership?

It is much easier to fix your own leadership deficiencies than it is to fix someone else's. To fix your own, you must simply acknowledge what you will never be good at, and get someone else to take over those leadership dimensions – to share leadership with you. Or you can work to build up and strengthen the weak areas, while drawing upon the team for understanding and assistance.

To get someone else to change is a tall order. People providing poor leadership generally know – sometimes vaguely – they are part of the problem. But in their minds they are convinced they are doing their best, or just behaving the way their personalities allow them to behave. Sure, they could read some book about ultra leadership. But to change, really change? That is a tall order, requiring:

  • courage on the intervener's part;
  • great honesty on the flawed leader's part;
  • good intentions on the part of everyone.

The Sins of Leaders

The following 24 problems can be taken two ways, as problems with your own leadership, or as problems with someone else's leadership. It's a long list, but a complete list of the ways leaders disappoint would be much longer.

Stupid leadership

The perception that leadership is stupid is insulting, but worse, it is statistically a very strong likelihood. No company, not even IBM or McKinsey, is immune from hiring the occasional bonehead – someone without the brain talent to understand the task at hand, and to communicate it to others.

If the problem is simply low I.Q., it will manifest itself in a number of ways. A leader will make frequent, repeated mistakes, misremembering important facts, coming to wrong conclusions based on evidence at hand. Teams can come to this kind of leader's rescue by dividing some of the tasks of leadership and reassigning them to team members competent in those areas.

But the problem usually isn't simply low I.Q. People low on brainpower seldom advance to positions of leadership. The problem is more often hard-headedness, mental stubbornness – an obdurate unwillingness to listen to alternatives once one course of action has been decided, or one perspective has been adopted. Many leaders are – what is the politically correct way to say this – flexibility challenged.

There are individuals who have a vexing combination of attributes – they are untalented in the craft of managing, but skilled in the politics of leading. If their intentions are good, a team can get by for a while on their charisma, enthusiasm, personal charm. But team performance will be poor, and these leaders will eventually have to step aside.

If their intentions are bad, the team has a dark angel in its midst – an individual skilled at covering up his or her own failures, at surviving despite team underperformance. This person is a danger to the team's mission, and must be taken out.

Leaders who are ignorant

In real life we forgive stupidity and condemn ignorance. On teams, ignorance is preferable.

There are several reasons. First, some ignorance is a given with teams. The days of the all-knowing leader are over. The concept of teams is predicated about people complementing one another's limited knowledge to create a stronger whole.

Second, ignorance doesn't have to be forever; stupidity, on the other hand, is terminal. We all have gaps in our knowledge base that we can fill in with learning.

But there are degrees and kinds of ignorance. You might say that an ignorant mind is an open mind – ready to be filled, open to new information and perspectives. Good ignorance. Humble ignorance.

Bad ignorance is proud of being ignorant, closed off to new input, stuck in its ways. Perhaps it is ignorance founded on experience: “This always worked for me in the past, so I don't need to learn any new approach now.”

What can team members do when a leader lacks knowledge critical to leading? Offer to fill in the gaps, or to bring in a new team member or co-leader from outside the team. It is a delicate matter, but it must be broached, because teams succeed on their own competencies.

Overtrained leadership

This is the eager beaver syndrome. There is a subgenus of team leaders who attend a few too many seminars, read a few too many magazine articles, and are perpetually bubbling over with the desire to set aside current initiatives and replace them with new, improved ones. To put it simply, the team leader is learning too quickly to integrate what he or she is learning.

Objecting to this eagerness can be perilous – one can easily appear “anti-progress,” or “change-resistant.” Make it clear that learning is valued – but as a means, not an end.

It is possible to be too talented.

This is a problem some teams wouldn't mind grappling with -when the leader or leaders are so bright that their personal competence exceeds their ability to teach. It is the “too smart for his own good” syndrome, where the leader is so brilliant the team never catches up. The best example from the literature is probably the Professor on Gilligan's Island – smart enough to make a cyclotron out of coconut shells, but unable to persuade his crew to patch a boat.

Solution: Change the individual's role from team leader to team resource. Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief.

Leadership that is too kind

Sometimes, being considerate is a team leader's downfall. Some leaders begin to see team members as their responsibility, their wards. They worry, “Am I going to fast for them? Am I pushing them too hard?” The danger is that their concern becomes a limiting factor on team progress, with the leader knowing what's best and trying to spare team members the shock of sudden plunges into new territory.

The antidote is for leaders to realize that these are grown men and women, not children or cocker spaniels. Pain and fear are a natural part of learning. Without crossing the line into managerial sadism, a leader is expected to keep team members always on the edge of what is comfortable – always learning.

Leaders that are closed to new ideas

This is related to the question about ignorance. Leaders all have, in our managerial make-up, tools with which we have enjoyed consistent success. Like the carpenter poised with hammer, we are ready, willing and able to find a nail to pound.

The problem is that the workplace is not all nails. The tried and true problem-solving approach isn't applicable to every situation. The best leaders accept this and develop a diverse set of tools, to avoid over-reliance on the hammer. Bad leaders keep hammering away long after the pounding stops doing any good.

This is a learning issue. Leadership must be about learning, openness to knowledge from every quarter. Ostriches are said to stick their heads in the sand when challenged – we think the behavior is much more typical of bad leaders.

How does a team intervene with a closed-minded leader? Good question. A good organization does not seek out such people at any level – but we know that every organization is rife with them.

Chances are that the resistance to new ideas is a fear reaction. If the leader has succeeded with Approach A, Approach B will not seem familiar or “succeedable.”

This evolution from hammerer to hammerhead is as ancient as the Assyrian bull. Every team must be constantly working to prevent calcification in all its members, but especially its leaders.

We suggest creating a culture of conscious and continuous openness – an atmosphere that instinctively rewards looking freshly at new approaches and perspectives, and which is instinctively suspicious of reliance on the tried and the allegedly true.

This is the spirit of continuous improvement – nothing is ever so good that it cannot be made better.

Inappropriate leadership styles

It happens all the time. An empowering type of leader expects team members to function autonomously, with a minumum of direction. But the team either has no experience with this kind of freedom, or are unable, person by person, to muster the initiative to make it work.

Or an autocratic leader expects that the style that worked fine in the days of being a line supervisor (“Do this. Do that. Now do this.”) will work with a team of cross-functional peers. The autocrat quickly finds his orders have no force with the group. Worse, even with all their leader's blustering, the group still needs leadership – articulation of goals, skilled communication, the willingness to teach and to coordinate.

Leaders who put themselves ahead of the team

This is perhaps the most damning indictment of a leader – that the leader has no loyalty to or real identification with the team.

Signs that leaders are only in it for themselves: an unwillingness to run interference for team goals; a disinclination to fight for the team and possibly alienate outside forces; a reluctance to share credit in times of success; a cheerful willingness to point fingers of blame when things go wrong.

Leaders that will not take personal risks for the team are the opposite of leaders. It is doubtful that any initiative can alter their self-serving nature. Confront these leaders and force them to choose between succeeding individually or succeeding as a team.

Leaders who don't really know the team

Teams must be committed to one another not just as team members but as people. If I am your team leader and I know your daughter needs an operation, I should want very badly to help you get that operation – as one of the goals of the team.

Some observers go further and say that team members must love one another. That is a hard standard to commit to. Some of us are noticeably unlovable; a few of us head for the hills at the mention of the word love. Substitute a phrase with less baggage, however – say that members must know and sympathize with one another as persons – and the meaning comes into focus.

There are lots of teams that do not “live together” – whose members do not share physical work space, that do not socialize after-hours, that do not eat, breathe, sleep, and dream with the others.

Nevertheless there can be no real team, and certainly no leadership, without some degree of intimacy – some human acknowledgment of one another, that we are all people, each one with a unique story, unique difficulties, unique dreams.

Leaders must be the first to make this acknowledgment. Leaders who fail lead teams that are linked by hand, but not by heart. A half-committed team. A team of clock-watchers.

Inconsistent leadership

In saying that leadership must exhibit humanity, we open leadership up to all the foibles of human nature. Perhaps the most common of these is inconsistency. Very few people are human ramrods – reliable from day to day, in sun and in shadow -unvarying and mechanical as a streetlight.

Leadership has rhythms and contradictions, like any other human behavior. These fluctuations don't cause serious problems in behaviors like walking or snoring; in behaviors like driving a car or leading a team, they do.

It may help to think of this up/down pattern as variation in the classic sense described in the writings of statistician Walter Shewhart1 and his protege, Wm. Edwards Deming2. Without doing violence to the human spirit, variation must be examined and understood, by leader and follower alike.

As: What are the causes of these lapses in leadership acuity? Do they appear random and uncontrollable, like the shifting direction of the wind? Is it just natural that we have our good days and our bad days? Or are lapses brought on by predictible and understandable events – fluctuations in personal financial stresses, quota and deadline stress, periodic visits from corporate overseers, with measurement of results?

You may find that stresses cause lapses, or the opposite – that let-downs occur during moments of low accountability, or on the heels of a visible success.

The solution: understand and improve those things that can be changed, and stoically accept the things you can't.

Leaders who cannot be followers

Most people are members of more than one team. In some team-conscious organizations, an individual may belong to as many as a hundred teams – some lasting no more than a few minutes – in the course of a work year. So it is inevitable that a leader on one team will be a follower or a peer member on many others.

Leadership that refuses to acknowledge team members

One of the first tasks of the leader is enlisting others to follow. Without followership, leadership is something of a moot point. No matter your position, title, or place in the royal birth order, if people aren't willing to follow you, you ain't a leader.

Leaders must see into the hearts and heads of those they would lead. Leaders who think leadership is about them have it exactly wrong. Ignore the team, and the team will ignore you. Acknowledging the contributions of team members (giving credit away), concentrating on recognition, reinforcement, and rewards all go a long way toward solidifying the team leader's legitimacy.

Leadership that plays favorites

There is an 80/20 rule in nearly every aspect of organizations: 80 percent of good results come from 20 percent of participants. In the case of customers, it makes good sense to concentrate on attending to the the 20 percent that does 80 percent of the business. With team members, however, special treatment prefaces a sudden, steep fall.

Team leaders must walk a tightrope: between knowing each team member individually, knowing what makes that member tick, what motivates him or her, what that member's needs and desires are; and any appearance that one group of team members is more valued than any other. Favoritism is a cancer that eats away at team spirit. For how can a team brandish its musketeer slogan of “All for one and one for all” when leadership is seeing to it that certain musketeers are given a greater ration of gunpowder?

Deming is very firm on this point. Special treatment and merit awards are for the birds, he says. Fawning over individuals -creating a system of team stars and team drones – is one of the surest ways to wreck a team.

Leadership that does not allow failure

Teams are melting pots of knowledge and creativity. Their job is twofold: to perform a designated task, and to be continuously improving the way the task is performed. A team can fulfill the first half of that mandate without ever taking chances and failing. No team can fulfill the second half – process improvement – without trying new things. And new things carry a high potential for embarrassment.

Joseph Juran, the Rumanian-born prophet of quality training, calls all mistakes “gold in the mine.”3 What he means is that mistakes are not just mistakes; properly committed, a goof feeds information back into the system on what works and what doesn't. Each failure, so long as it is faced up to and not swept under the carpet, is a golden nugget of information leading a team to greater success.

Some of the most successful teams have created a culture where failure is not only allowed but encouraged – a biweekly prize of $20 for the most egregious screw-up, or the custody of the team trophy until the next noteworthy mishap occurs.

This represents a sea change in organizational thinking, of course. Who wants to be known as the first unit in the company to celebrate failure – especially to the folks in finance?

But it is no more radical a change than the move to teams itself. The two principles are, in fact, inseparable. Teams and trial-and-error are both about learning.

If your team leader is uptight about failure, that is again a sign that fear runs the team, and the organization. Leaders must give their teams hope of success by displaying courage in the face of embarrassment. One way to modify the risk and expense of errors is to introduce new ideas on a scaled or pilot basis -on a laboratory basis as opposed to a global, the-whole-world-is-watching basis.

Find ways to overcome, mitigate, or minimize the fear of failure. Then fail your way to success.

Leaders who protect and blame

Cannibal organizations – those that, in times of stress, eat their own – have little patience with reports of team screw-ups. The pattern is frightening and predictable: some poor devil makes a detectable error, and all around stand, like the stiffs in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, point their fingers and screech.

The useless team leader, as terrified of personal retribution as everyone else, joins in with the pointing and screeching. In such an organization, there may be groups designated as teams. But with people living in such fear, there can be little team feeling or team support.

A good team leader is like a friend, ready to step in and take the occasional bullet. A sane organization cultivates what James Heskett and Earl Sasser4 call “an atmosphere of blamelessness”– the acknowledgment that bad stuff happens, but that we are all in the business of learning and failing together.

This issue goes so deep, to the heart of a corporation's character, that there is not much that team members can do when its leader betrays it.

But team leaders should remind themselves every day of the situation they are in. They have been assigned a difficult task by an organization that will only permit one kind of report – a report that by definition must be a lie.

It is a fundamentally dishonest and sadistic situation, one an intelligent individual might risk leaving, for the good of all teams.

Unethical leaders

Much has been written about the importance of principles and leadership, but most of it at the executive level. Ethics are important at the team level, as well, especially the ethical tone the team leader sets – and the contradiction between declarations and deeds.

The team does not exist for the leader's sake; quite the opposite. The leader is there to coach team members in skills and teamwork, to assist them with problems they are having in execution, to acknowledge achievement and effort, to share and teach knowledge as it is acquired, to model suitable team behavior, and to periodically remind team members of the team's mission and goals.

These tasks imply above all else a moral simplicity and directness. A leader cannot tell one team member one thing, and another team member something quite different. A leader may not ever deceive the team.

Leaders must not put themselves above the team, for any reason or for any period of time. The leader has been given a trust that is easily violated. For something that happens at work, it is pretty darn sacred.

Does this mean team leaders must behave like St. Francis of the Flowers? No. They should always be themselves. And they should be free to pursue their own ambitions, even if that eventually takes them away from the team.

But while they have responsibility for the team they must be true to their role as leaders. And that means continuous improvement of those leadership processes – becoming a better coach, teacher, model and servant. [For more on trust and teams, see Chapter 15, “Depleted Trust”]

Leaders who are remote

Conventional leaders may put distance between themselves and those they lead. The distance deliberately limits information followers have. Think of Big Brother in the George Orwell's novel 1984, visible only on telescreens. Or the reclusive movie director. Or baseball manager Connie Mack, who never fraternized, never even dressed in his team's uniform.

The distance was used as a prop. It allowed these leaders to create a cult of personality, of charisma. Take away the distance and people would have seen that Big Brother puts on his pants one leg at a time, that the director is secretly terrified of dealing with people, that 80-year-old manager Connie Mack needed the distance his cover up his impaired faculties.

A true team feeds on information. Leaders who squeeze it through the eye of a needle starve their teams.

Leaders who fail to model team behavior

“Do as I say, not as I do.”

Oh, if only we could get away with that. But we can't. Even kids see through it. Leadership requires mutual respect between team members and leaders. If the team sees you behaving counter to the standards you set as a leader, you'll lose their respect, trust, and followership. Operative term: hypocrisy.

The word passion originally meant suffering. The general the soldiers love suffers with them. They have a passion for one another that is real and unstinting. It's OK to talk the talk -provided you first walk the walk.

Leaders who are oblivious to team members' career needs

For the entire team to be effective, the needs of individual members must be acknowledged and, when possible, met. Team members do not live to be on the team – they have dreams of moving on to better things some day. When it comes to career development/advancement needs, team leaders are in a much better position to assist because of their role and experience, and because of their knowledge of the internal politics and future needs of the company.

Leaders who actively involve themselves in helping team members achieve career aspirations build trust, loyalty, and comraderie.

Leaders who are unwilling to fight for the team

The great and paradoxical philosopher Lao Tsu described the role of the true leader as that of a servant. In modern terms, the servant-leader concept translates into the one who establishes the direction (vision, goals, etc.), then runs along side other team members shouting encouragement, knocking down barriers, opening up networks – running interference.

Why would a team fight for a leader who won't fight for them?

Leadership that is unwilling to take risks

Ken Melrose, CEO of Toro Co., says leaders must take risks for companies to succeed. Those who take the safe routes tend to get the mediocre results; over time, they are overtaken by competitors. Good leaders encourage calculated (i.e., not stupid) risk-taking. If things go wrong, good leaders separate the outcome from the decision – they complain about the outcome, while praising the decision to take the risk in the first place.

Failure, after all, is valuable information. You do not shoot the bringer of such information. Rather, you encourage continued risk-taking, another attempt, a different direction, etc. Leaders who don't encourage their teams to make stretches are rewarded in kind – with un-elastic teams.

Two things destroy teams – too little challenge and way, way too much. Find a middle path. Craft challenges that stretch your team, without pulling it apart at the seams.

Leaders who cannot permit conflict

We all have a mental picture of the ideal team. Clever people share their ideas, nod appreciatively at one another, and work harmoniously to craft solutions in which everyone participates equally. The picture is the corporate equivalent of a Norman Rockwell – charming, but eerily unreal.

In real life, the lot of the leader is less a Thanksgiving dinner than a combat ration. You present your idea. I sort of listen. As soon as you are done, I lob a pineapple-sized grenade in the vicinity of your flipcharts. We compete. We jostle for advantage. We disagree, sometimes passionately. Often we just don't like each other very much, and the conflict takes on an unpleasant personal edge.

This conflict is very dismaying to many team leaders. They are too smitten by the Norman Rockwell idea, or by their own preconceptions of how teams should behave, or their own innate distaste for disharmony, to endure this very human conflict.

We say, there is conflict and there is conflict. Successful teams sometimes behave unattractively, but not dysfunctionally. They do not verbally abuse one another, or sabotage one another's efforts, or pour paint in one another's in-boxes.

Team leaders must expect and must endure the fact that many teams oftentimes more closely resemble kennels than think-tanks.

Teams whose leaders are too high-strung or too squeamish or who seek to censor or stifle expression have a problem – the knowledge they must share may not be communicated. They must indicate to the leader that the give-and-take is too valuable to try to “control.”

Leadership that does not value diversity

Yes, of course – diversity in the sense of equal opportunity for people of races, religious groups, ethnic backgrounds, for both genders, lifestyles, medical conditions and so on.

“When in doubt,” says diversity guru Jennithudith James,5 “hire the one in the turban.” This kind of diversity, on a team dealing with a global and diverse marketplace, is an obvious strength. A leader who is prejudiced against groups belongs in Jurassic Park, not a modern organization. Besides, it's the law.

Looking beyond cave behavior, there is a more important way to think about diversity – as difference. An un-diverse team is a white-bread gaggle of yes-men – often quite literally. A truly diverse team brings together not just people with different backgrounds but different ways of thinking.

To be valuable to the organization, diversity has to go way beyond legal compliance to an opportunistic cherry-picking of team members for the different outlooks – different knowledge and ideas – each member can bring to the table.

A great team is one without factions, because no one is in automatic, cultural agreement with anyone else.

A great team leader is one who can not only live with this differentness, but can revel in the clash of values, exult in disagreement, and honor the spirit of dissent. Hint: Team leaders don't have to be white males just because they have always been.

Passive leadership

Think of leadership as a set of initiating activities. It is about moving things – a product, a service, an idea, a team -from here to there.

Where managers are properly reactive, responding with existing knowledge to existing curcumstances, leaders must be proactive, acquiring and teaching new knowledge for contiunously changing circumstances. Managers mostly stay in place; leaders are on the move.

Leadership is not better than managership. You can't vault over one to get to the other. Think of management – knowing when and how to react appropriately – as a foundation for leadership. Once the foundation is firmly in place, leadership takes over. Then you must build skills and confidence to take initiative and risk to move the team forward. You may be a good manager (reactive, firefighting) but not a good leader (proactive, planning).

You can be a great manager but not a good leader. But you cannot be a great leader without first being, at the very least, a decent manager.

Throughout this chapter we have highlighted team leaders involving others, early and often. In so doing, they leverage their own efforts while focusing the skills and cooperative action necessary to tackle “cross-boundary” problems and opportunities.

If your team is having difficulties, the odds of leadership being at the root of the difficulties is very high. You, too must find a path between the old and the new, to find what works for your group. Because “what works” is the very heart and soul of good team leadership. Keep trying things, like Edison and his incandescent bulb, until something lights up.

Questions to ask about your team leadership

Who's in charge? (Answer: Whoever is ultimately accountable for the team outcome.)

Is our leadership stable, or does it rotate from person to person? If it rotates, when does it rotate, and to whom?

What role has the team agreed upon for its leader?

Are there informal leaders as well?

How do these informal or ad hoc leaders affect overall team success? Are we getting the most out of their capabilities? Are we frustrating them, and possibly thwarting team success?

Have we considered having more than one formal leader? Why might that be good?

Does everyone on the team agree to the roles and responsibilities of the defined leader(s)?

Does everyone on the team know whom to go to for direction and guidance?


WHY TEAMS DON'T WORK is published by Peterson's / Pacesetter Books. Price, hardcover: $20.95. Ask your bookseller for ISBN 1-56079-497-6. Or call Peterson's toll-free ordering number: 1-800-338-3282

WHY TEAMS DON'T WORK has been nominated for BEST BUSINESS BOOK of the year in the GLOBAL BUSINESS BOOK AWARDS competition. It was also named “One of the best 30 business books of 1995” by Soundview Executive Summaries. And a Portuguese-language version will be published next year!

Copyright 1995 by Harvey Robbins & Michael Finley

All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without written permission from the authors.

  1. Walter A. Shewhart, Economic Control of Manufactured Product (Milwaukee: Quality Press, 1980)
  2. Wm. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986)
  3. Joseph A. Juran, ed. Quality Control Handbook, Fourth Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989)
  4. James L. Heskett and W. Earl Sasser, Jr., Breakthrough Service (New York: The Free Press, 1990
  5. Jennifer James, “When in Doubt, Hire the One in the Turban” audiotape (Dallas: The Executive Roundtable, 1994)

Mike Finley

design/the_sins_of_leaders.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)