Why Most of Us are Terrible at Leadership

We often develop our personal idea of good leadership from being led by bad leaders and our desire to do it differently. Yet many of us end up being quite similar to the very people we once despised. Why? Read on. (hint: it is NOT because we are stupid!)

Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to visit One World Observatory on top of One World Trade Center. This magnificent building had been opened to the public just a few days before, it was a perfect day and I had an amazing view over New York.

Picture showing New York from One World Observatory
View from One World Trade Center

Looking at such a mighty city from above is one of those moments for reflection, and on this day I had one of my biggest in a long time:

Why most of us suck at leadership, and what do to about it.

I want to share it with you.

Learning about Leadership: Shock Therapy

Do you remember those classes you might have had on leadership at university or MBA school? Me neither. It was one of those courses which, although perhaps taught brilliantly, simply did not mean much at the time. The first real lesson in leadership is usually taught once we finish uni or do our first real internship.

Do you remember the first time a manager yelled at you or another employee? I do remember that moment very clearly – and also how it made me feel.

There you go, that’s your first real lesson in leadership. In my case, my reaction was two-fold:

  1. Something just went terribly wrong and I need to make sure I avoid doing this going forward.
  2. This person is a horrible boss for delivering criticism this way, and once I am in a senior position, I will never be like this!

Sadly, this was not the last time I experienced behaviour I thought of as bad leadership, but the beginning of a journey which has lasted throughout my career, now covering almost 9 years. Each time a new example was added to my personal collection of bad leadership behaviour, my determination grew to be a better person once I am ready.

Stepping up – and tripping over

And when I was ready, I made sure I never raised my voice at an employee, and until this day never have. Neither did I do anything else quite on the same level, which is something I am happy about. However, I did come to realise that I started displaying some other habits I previously criticised in my bosses! And here I was, responsible for a team for the first time, doing things I had loathed before when they were done to me.

Amongst my shortcomings were:

  1. Trying to make team members deliver against our targets, sometimes resorting to “Come on, it certainly is possible and we have to do it” when intrinsic motivation would not develop as expected
  2. Being bad a communicating because I felt too swamped and unable to handle it all, causing delays and frustration for others
  3. Defaulting to “management paradigms” trying to end a discussion I did not want to have at the moment, because I did not have time or the answer right away

Once I realised it, I felt terrible about myself. The fact that this happened confused me a lot because I could not understand why, until I realised I was not alone: Many friends of mine made similar experiences and were equally nonplussed by them!

So why on Earth does this happen to so many of us? Why do we display behaviour we previously identified as bad leadership qualities?

Leaders are just another brick in the wall

Assuming we are able to critically reflect on our own behaviour, it does seem strange that we adopt behaviour patterns we strongly despise in others. For me, there are two possible explanations for it:

  1. We have been conditioned to behave like this by our professional environment and are unwilling to break the pattern – we feel we now have earned the right to rule.
  2. We still do not agree, but succumb to the dynamics of the system and feel we are forced to behave this way – we feel we have no choice but to follow the pattern.

The first explanation indicates a desire to reclaim: we were once treated unfairly by our bosses, and now it is our turn to re-establish the balance – irrespective of the ethical implications. This often happens to people with very hierarchical world views. The second explanation demonstrates idealistic views, combined with the inability to overcome the (perceived) dynamics of our professional environment.

I do not wish to judge since I have empathy for both points of view. However, the first position indicates a questionable moral compass. As long as a person does not critically reflect on that, they will not be able to progress to the next stage.

To me, the second position is that next stage. You might see it as a weak position, but there is motivation to “do the right thing”. Let’s focus on this.

True leadership is about building the right system

Once I understood my situation – wanting to do what I felt was right, but feeling the organisational structure and culture inhibiting me – I focused on the limitations to my success. I realised that me (and possibly many others in similar situations) feel powerless even in positions one would normally associate with formal authority.

The reason is actually quite simple:

Formal authority itself means nothing – because you cannot force change in people who are conditioned otherwise.

In a system where people are used to a certain status quo, implementing change in leadership will not be possible unless you change the system itself from the bottom up. I believe in many cases this will only be possible when starting a whole new business – with people who are not already highly indoctrinated or at least are open-minded enough to go back to square one.

This is the true definition of leadership for me: To build the right system and then let people operate freely within it. It does not mean actively leading or managing them – you won’t have to if you build the system the right way.

Please don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that it will be easy to build the right kind of company identity, communication structure and, most importantly, establish a culture of mutual trust.

It actually is a very difficult process, and it will take time. And yes, you will mess up – it is inevitable. However, if you keep going, you will be able to create an environment for your team which allows them to unleash their full potential.

Putting it all together: From Leader to Architect

Declaring that building the right system will be the answer obviously poses the next question: So what is the right system? (“And don’t you dare end this post without saying it!”)

The answer is actually quite simple: The right system should make one position superfluous: the leader! In this system, this person should be an “architect” who is responsible for designing and setting up the structures for everyone to operate in. And that’s it.

If done correctly, actively leading people will not be necessary because they will be empowered and capable enough to make their own decisions. How so?

Because they fully understand their role in the business, they feel part of it and, because they feel it is based on fair rules, they also feel committed to its success. 

And you should leave them be and trust them – because it makes no sense at all to centralise decision making when you might not know nearly as much about, for example, the clients as your account management team does! Why not let them decide what is best? Why interfere?

To me, a major flaw in management theory is the basic agreement that people actually need leadership: It implies they are incapable without it. And this basic assumption is wrong. They only become incapable of acting independently once they have been indoctrinated with hierarchical thinking and top-down leadership!

If you set up the right system, hire the right kind of people who are open to working in an organisation without mind-numbing hierarchies and decision making, and if you are able to really live up to those principles, you can build a great, successful organisation with a solid structure – from the ground up.

Building the right organisation with leadership from the bottom up
One World Trade Center – from below


What are your thoughts? Have you ever been able to implement real leadership change in an established organisation? Either way, I want to hear from you, so email me: matthias@matthiaslissner.com or leave a comment!