Thought leadership

The 7 Deadly Sins of Leadership

As a continuation of the previous post on “The 21st Century Leader in Motion”, we did an exercise using our map of successful leadership drivers for the 21st century, and an interesting picture emerged. We call this “The 7 Deadly Sins of Leadership”, and it forms a nice checklist of what not to do as a leader. Put another way, if one is to be a successful leader in the 21st century, the following are barriers to overcome, or pitfalls to be avoided:

The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. Of all kinds.
Howard Schultz

1. Lack of imagination

While people have always expected some degree of imagination from their leaders, it’s of particular importance in this century, where ideas drive the economy and create wealth. And never have there been more ideas competing in the marketplace for our attention. Imagination inspires, and today’s audiences are hungry for inspiration.

2. Lack of people intuition

It’s not just ‘user interfaces’ that need to be intuitive, our leaders need to be as well. When Howard Schultz stepped down as CEO of Starbucks in 2000, it went into a decline that only abated when he returned to his post in 2008. Many cite his remarkable people intuition for the resurgence of the company.

3. An uncaring approach to one’s people

Gone are the days when leaders and their organizations can get away with an uncaring approach to employees, customers and communities. Whole documentaries (such as The Corporation) and social movements (such as the Slow Food Movement) have emerged as a reaction to the brutal, uncaring spirit of many corporations in the 20th century. In this century, those who demonstrate a genuine concern for people will have a distinct advantage. Here again, we cite Howard Schultz, not because he’s the perfect leader (there’s no such thing), but because he exemplified this quality when in 2013 he was told by a shareholder that his support of gay marriage was hurting the company financially. Here was his response:

Not every decision is an economic decision. Despite the fact that you recite statistics that are narrow in time, we did provide a 38% return over the last year. I don’t know how many things you invest in, but I suspect not many investments have returned 38% over the last 12 months. Having said that, it is not an economic decision to me. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. Of all kinds.”

4. Being stuck in the past – or a stick in the mud

Relevance is not just for brands, it’s for leaders themselves. A leader must demonstrate a fresh approach in today’s world, one that is cognizant of what is current without being slavish to it. The recent Canadian federal election was a remarkable demonstration of how an old, rigid political style – went the way of the dinosaurs. Canadian voters overwhelmingly chose the leader who demonstrated a fresh way of thinking.

5. Violating trust

Seems obvious, but it’s still surprising how many corporate and public leaders violate the trust of their constituents. The financial crisis of the late 2000’s was not only the result of foolish policies and decision-making in the U.S. financial sector, but a formidable betrayal of public trust. As an after effect, U.S. banks have seen a defection of high net worth and institutional clients who have flocked to banks in places like Canada, due to the perceptions around trust.

6. The Confidence Gap

While pounding your fist like a mid-century Soviet leader might get you headlines, it’s not going to win you many long-term followers. Aggression betrays an underlying insecurity, which will eventually result in a downward spiral. In contrast, leaders who demonstrate an unshakable “quiet confidence” will prevail in the end. Icons like Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, among others, have demonstrated this quiet confidence in ways that have inspired millions, well beyond their jurisdiction.

7. Chasing fame and likability

This is perhaps the deadliest sin of all. Chasing fame and likability is proof of overriding self-interest. And is a trap that leaders can find it hard to escape from, once they fall into it.

All this may seem like a tall order, but it’s helpful to remember that being a leader need not – and should not – reside in a single individual. Rather, it should be the responsibility of the entire team. As a whole, an organization should exemplify these principles of leadership, and make every effort to course correct when one of the ‘deadly sins’ is committed.



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