4 Ways Leaders Self-Sabotage

By Rick Houcek

Today I want to talk about something rather provocative… 4 ways leaders self-sabotage their own influence with their own team.  You may be guilty of 1 or 2 of these, or maybe all 4.

Let’s face it, as a leader, you influence people every single day.  Most assuredly you influence your own team, your own employees, your own followers.

But too often, unknowingly, we negatively influence our followers.  More by acts of omission than by acts of commission.  Meaning, we negatively influence them more by things we’re not doing than things we are doing.

Here are 4 acts of omission I find leaders most guilty of…

Guilty of invisibility.  Staying harbored in the ivory tower.  And, of course, ivory tower is merely a metaphor – you may not actually have an office that’s on the 14th floor of a building.  If you are invisible to your people, they see you as impersonal.

As a matter of fact, let’s talk about what roles your people, your followers, your team actually see and identify with you as.

One is, they see you as a parent figure.  Second, they see you as a teacher.  Third, they see you as a destiny controller… someone who makes decisions and has control over their futures.  And fourth, they see you as Santa Claus… someone with the rights of beneficiary to bestow gifts on others, or withhold gifts.

Why would you pull any of those important roles away from them?  That’s what they see you as.  Why don’t you wear those hats and be that person?  But to do it, you have to be personal to them – and therefore visible.

People want relationships with their leaders.  Give it to them.  Don’t hide.  And by the way, if you’re thinking right now, “Well, Rick, I’m very visible to my people.  I’m always there.”…  I can tell you that if I interviewed your people and asked them to what degree do you have constant contact and touching from your leaders, they would say, “Very seldom.”  I know – I ask this question all the time.  So despite what you may think, they see it differently.

Guilty of having no ‘stump speech’.  What is a stump speech?  A stump speech is something that you repeatedly say.  It’s kind of the high horse you’re always on, but it’s a high horse with purpose.  You’ve got to be a storyteller.

Let’s say, for example, that customer service is important to your particular business.  Now, first of all, I hate the term customer service.  It’s too vanilla, too generic, too plain Jane.  I would rather hear words like creating a superior or memorable customer experience.  Now, that’s something with some meat to it.

Well, so let’s say that is something vitally important to your company.  It’s something that sets you apart from competitors.  As a leader, you need to create a ‘stump speech’ around creating superior and memorable customer experiences.

Here’s how you do it.  An easy way is find your own employees who are doing it well and continually tell their stories.  In so doing, 2 great things happen.  First, you compliment your employee in the telling.  Second, you drive home to everybody else in the company that it’s important.  Other employees or teammates will see now that the leader finds this important and realize, “Gee, maybe I should be engaging it in too,” because what’s important to you becomes important to them.

So, you can build stump speeches around the positive behaviors of your own people… and around the core values and the behaviors of the company that are required for every employee to live.

Guilty of screwing up names.  Forgetting names, getting them wrong, mispronouncing, and misspelling.

Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, the sound of anyone’s name is the most important sound to them in any language.  And he could not be speaking greater truth than that.

It is imperative, in my belief, that every leader should become good at remembering names, pronouncing correctly, and spelling correctly.  Don’t mess up somebody’s name.  It’s too important to them.

I’ve written on this subject many times, and I often get pushback.  I once got an email back from a reader who said, “Rick, I think you’re overplaying the importance of this.  Names are not as important as you think they are.  I am not good with names and…” yada, yada, yada.

I instantly labeled him as someone who denied the importance of names – just because he wasn’t good at names and wasn’t willing to become good.  Don’t be a caught in that trap.  Names are very important to other people, no matter what you might think they are – and getting this right is a gift of respect.

Guilty of not personally ‘touching’ their followers.  Of course, I mean touching in the figurative sense, not literal.

Today, one of the guiltiest and biggest purveyors of this guilt is social media.  Social media is, frankly, very impersonal.  Look at Twitter, look at Facebook.  Both are a one-to-many medium.  You’re not talking one-to-one… you’re talking one-to-thousands… which is impersonal as a result.

If you really want to personally touch your followers, revert back to one-to-one.  And how do you do that?  Well, conversations in the hall.  Or stop by somebody’s office and give them the 1-minute praising from the book The One Minute Manager.  Or just a conversation on any topic, whatever that might be.  Those conversations are important.

Another way is personal, handwritten notes.  I’m not a fan of email and texting these because both can be a very cold and impersonal medium.  Yes, both are more immediate, but the handwritten note – or card – carries special meaning, is more appreciated, yet is almost forgotten today.

I once had a CEO client who said to me – he had a very large organization with multiple offices all over the U.S. and he traveled every week – and he said, “Rick, every Monday morning, I put 40 blank thank-you cards in my briefcase and 40 envelopes. My goal is by the end of the week – by Friday when I get home – I will have written 40 thank-yous, recognitions, acknowledgements, or congratulatory notes to employees in the company – and will have sent or mailed or distributed them in the course of that week.”

Now, he had enough people that he could send out 40 in a week and he wouldn’t redundantly hit the same people too frequently, which might make it seem disingenuous.  You’ve got to make sure it is very genuine and from the heart, and if you’re touching too many people too often, they begin to think you’re just a glad-hander and it’s not sincere.  So you’ve got to be careful.  He had a lot people.  If you have fewer people then maybe your goal is a lot less.  But here’s somebody who took the bull by the horns and created a process to frequently touch his people.

I do something similar.  My goal is to do one hand-written note per day, so in a week, I do 5 to 7 which I send to clients, friends, family, suppliers, people I work with, or somebody I just want to say thank-you to.

There’s a trick to this.  You’ve got to be specific in your praise, not general.  So, if you say something like, “Good job on the proposal,” sorry, doesn’t work, not specific enough.  Way too general.  Something that would be better is, “I was very impressed with the level of detail in your proposal and how articulate you were in explaining the benefits of using us.”  Now you’ve gotten specific.  You’ve touched them in a very personal way.  They really know you were listening… and it matters to them.

So, there’s 4 ways leaders often self-sabotage.  Don’t do any of them yourself.

Don’t be guilty of invisibility.  Don’t be guilty of not having a stump speech.  Don’t be guilty of screwing up names.  And don’t be guilty of not personally touching your followers.

Turn all of those leadership sins into positives… and you’ll have a team of eager beavers willing to go to the mat for you.


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