Three Warning Signs That You’re Setting Yourself Up For A Leadership FAIL

Posted 08.30.2010

There’s a long-standing piece of advice to leaders that goes like this. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Fenty-dc I’m thinking about that this morning having read an article in the Washington Post over the weekend about polling that shows DC mayor Adrian Fenty’s previously overwhelming lead in his reelection campaign has flipped to a 17 point deficit. Post reporter Mike DeBonis breaks down the numbers and offers an excellent analysis of how things have deteriorated for Fenty. He offers several reasons why Fenty is on the ropes.  When I read through the list, I saw three reasons that should serve as reality checks for leaders in any arena.

The common denominator question for leaders is do you, through your words and actions, show that you care about the people you’re leading? Here are the warning signs of an impending leadership fail that DeBonis identified in his article:

DeBonis says that Fenty:

Lost his base – he hasn’t stayed connected with the core supporters that originally elected him mayor. The concept of understanding who your base is and how to stay connected to them is one that a lot of leaders overlook. Do you understand who your stakeholders are and do you have a systematic approach for staying connected with them?

Betrayed his message – Fenty ran on a platform of competent management but has overspent the budget on highly visible programs, appointed his friends to city boards and awarded city contracts to other friends.  One of the quickest ways for leaders to disconnect from their followers is to behave in ways that are inconsistent with what they say is important to them.  Do as I say, not as I do is a recipe for leadership failure.

Hasn’t listened
– DeBonis notes that upon election, Fenty took on the persona of “big city mayor” and started doing things that set him apart from his allies and the people who elected him.  He ignored the advice of people who were trying to help him see the negative impact of his actions. As a leader, do you have people around you who tell you things that you don’t enjoy hearing? If you don’t, you’re running the risk of doing things that lead to a disconnect.  

How do these warning signs apply outside of politics? Consider the case of Mark Hurd, the recently deposed CEO of Hewlett Packard. As Joe Nocera reported in his New York Times column a couple of weeks ago, Hurd more or less ignored the same warning signs that are causing problems for Fenty.  Here’s an excerpt that sums it all up. 

(Speaking of Hurd,) Rob Enderle, a well-known technology consultant, noted that in recent internal surveys, nearly two-thirds of H.P. employees said they would leave if they got an offer from another company — a staggering number. “He didn’t have the support of his people,” Mr. Enderle said. Although he was good at “holding executives’ feet to the fire, he seemed to be the only one benefiting from H.P.’s success,” Mr. Enderle continued. “He alienated himself from the people who might have protected him.”

What’s your take?  What are the signs that a leader really cares about the people he or she leads?  Conversely, what are the other warning signs that can predict a big FAIL for leaders who don’t care?