How to Be a More Responsible Leader

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Statistically, most leaders are not well prepared for assuming a leadership. Many leaders in organizations keep getting promoted until they reach a level of respective incompetence. This is known as “The Peter Principle”. So how does this happen? We interviewed Kathleen E.R. Murphy, Gallup Certified Strengths Coach, about why incompetent people end up in leadership roles and how leaders can be more effective.

Can you explain The Peter Principle and it’s effect on organizations?

The Peter Principle effect on an organization is similar to not watering your plant. At first you might not notice the impact on the plant, but eventually the results of not regularly watering the plant will become evident. Eventually if you neglect the plant completely, it will die. People working for an organization which enables the Peter Principle to thrive, will start to see its high potential and motivated performers start to leave. They recognize the negative impact of working for incompetent managers sooner than others, and generally will not tolerate working for them.

What can people wishing to become leaders do to prepare for the responsibilities that come with being a leader?

The first thing everyone who wants to become a leader should do, is to find at least one person who can mentor them. Their mentor can either be at their company, or from a different organization. Asking for additional responsibilities, and seeking out opportunities to manage another person, project and eventually a team is also relevant experience they should seek to acquire. Not everyone is cut out to be a leader. Some people are better at being an individual contributor, or on a team. If someone struggles early on with managing others, or finds out they may not enjoy the process of doing so, while motivating them too, this will help them know if this is the right direction for them to pursue.

Another action prospective leaders should take is to begin developing their own Board of Advisors. The people on this board may not in fact interact with one another, and each will serve a different role than their mentor. However, they will be instrumental in being a “go to” person when a prospective leader begins running into having to handle circumstances they are not familiar with. Or, when they need various opinions on how to develop their strategic plans, and when difficult decisions need to be vetted in a timely manner, and when they do not have experience with making strong, rapid decisions.

How can those currently in leadership roles improve their leadership skills?

The most straightforward answer to this question is to always have the mindset of being a student, and to embrace continuous learning throughout your career. Since emotional intelligence (EQ) and common sense are innate skills, if a leader is lacking in these “soft” leadership skills, they will need to surround themselves with others in their organization who can fill this void. They must also rely upon these individuals with a high EQ to help them with decisions involving shaping the culture of the company, as a leader who lacks EQ and common sense will fail miserably if they attempt to shape this on their own without proper guidance and support.

Understanding the strengths of your management team is also a critical skill leaders can leverage to help them improve their leadership skills. When leaders understand both their own strengths, and the strengths of their leadership team, they can exponentially and quickly begin to see how their organization can run much more effectively and efficiently. The bonus is that their leadership team and the people who work for them will also be much happier, and satisfied in their roles when they are allowed to focus on applying their strengths to the organization.

Is there any advice you can offer employees working under incompetent leaders?

Working for an incompetent leader can be highly frustrating. Especially if it is obvious the leader is not equipped to be in the role they are. In extreme situations, if you are in the unfortunate position of working for an incompetent leader, sometimes the best course of action is to consider finding another company to work for. However, one of the main contributing factors to why someone is an incompetent leader is that they lack awareness of who they really are. Or, what they are actually good at doing. They also are often poor communicators, and yet they perceive they are actually good at doing this.

When you work for an incompetent leader, depending on where you are positioned in your organization (e.g., entry level, middle or upper management), if you have a Human Resource team, or a boss you can have an open and honest conversation with about working for an incompetent leader, you might be able to find out whether the incompetent leader is receiving any coaching. If they are not, and the company you are working for does not invest in helping employees at all levels with some form of internal or external coaching, I would recommend asking if coaching is being considered for employees at levels, including the leader of the company. Keep in mind that coaching is not a one and done concept, so it might take some time for the coaching to work. However, some coaching can offer immediate results.

Are there any ways companies can ensure that their workers are equipped with the tools and training needed to become great leaders?

Yes, and there appears to be a trend that companies who invest in their employees are applying. It involves offering a Mentoring Program for their employees to join, regardless of the career stage they are at. Training offered via a Mentoring program is common, and often the company will bring in outside talent to help offer an objective perspective on the topic being taught or discussed. Providing leadership training is beneficial for all levels of employees, and it can serve as a refresher for those who are in leadership roles. Since there are no guarantees you can train someone to become a great leader, companies can help to support investing in potential leaders by making sure their basic and foundational leadership skills are strong. This would include ensuring their communication skills are continuously being developed, they understand and practice thoughtful listening skills, understand the value of being sincerely empathetic, and know how to motivate and create a culture which is based on trust and valuing one another’s respective talents. Training great leaders also involves actual leaders modeling the leadership style which promotes the feeling of employees feeling appreciated for their contributions. When employees do not believe their contributions are valued by a leader, one of the foundational pillars of a strong company culture will begin to erode.

One final way a company can ensure their workers are equipped with the tools and training needed to become great leaders, is to make sure every employee understands who their customer is. Providing all employees with an opportunity to interact with a companies customers should occur on a regular basis, independent of the role someone plays in an organization. This would involve having employees in non-customer facing roles spend time shadowing employees who are customer facing, and for either a number of hours, half a day, or ideally interacting directly with customers. Employees who do not interact with customers on a regular basis will gain a completely new perspective on the value of them, and this is even more critical a concept for leaders, or prospective leaders to embrace. Doing this on a regular basis is also key, as leaders can gain highly valuable insight for future strategic planning and competitive purposes. Always having a customer mindset, is another factor which separates strong leaders apart from those who are not.