One of the key strengths that successful leaders share is that they’re confident. To get where they are they’ve had to have confidence in their own ability, confidence in their strategy and the confidence to ‘hang in there’ when others gave up.
However, when strengths are over-used they can quickly become weaknesses, and to put this into a very current context we only need consider the case of the banking industry.
In a scenario reminiscent of the one brought frighteningly accurately to life in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail, the UK’s largest banks became larger, bolder and (I’d venture to suggest) more reckless – until the bubble burst and, to varying degrees, they ‘failed’. Now, of course, organisations don’t fail – people do. But what was it that led some of our most senior, and arguably most successful, bankers to fail so spectacularly?
To reach the very top, as I said earlier, leaders need the confidence to believe in themselves. But, in some, this can lead to what I call The Three ‘I’s – Isolation, Infallibility and “I’m always right”.
The first of these is, I think, easy to understand. The old adage ‘it’s lonely at the top’ can be true. Leaders who strive to reach the real heights often have to go it alone, and distancing themselves from the everyday ‘noise’ of their business helps them to focus on the future. This distance, when over-used, leads to isolation and an inability to connect with what’s really important in the business.
The second two ‘I’s are closely related. Infallibility seems to occur when leaders hold their beliefs so passionately that they’re able to persuade those who work for them (either through force of conviction or fear) that they are, in fact, infallible – even when logic tells those they’re trying to convince that this isn’t true.
And the final ‘I’ is, probably, the one I have observed most often in bankers and other leaders. This is the dangerous ability to convince themselves that they are always right. For example, convincing themselves that a (later to be proved doomed) merger is “an exact fit with our business strategy” or that pushing their colleagues to hit (later to be proved unattainable) targets against the better judgement of experts in the target area is “just what we need to do to grow market share”.
So how can leaders avoid succumbing to The Three ‘I’s?
Well, easing back on the ‘confidence’ lever is a great start. Don’t get me wrong, leaders must have the confidence to be successful – as long as that confidence doesn’t cross the line into arrogance. And there are a couple of simple ways for leaders to make sure they stay on the right side of the confidence/arrogance line:
- Identify one of your direct reports and challenge them with spotting the flaws in the decisions you’re making. Even if they can’t find any, ask them to think about the craziest thing that might happen if you pursue your plans. And listen to them. (Handled well, this is also good development for them.)
- Rediscover your humility. None of us is always right, or always wrong. Learn to say “I was wrong” without feeling the need to justify why. Simply using those words will elevate you massively in the eyes of your colleagues.
And if you find yourself feeling isolated, being perceived as infallible or saying (even if only to yourself) “I’m always right” – stop for a moment and reflect on the state of the banking industry.
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