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How to recognize and avoid failed leadership
April 4 2013

Successful organizations identify, nurture and groom individuals who exhibit the willingness to take action when leadership has failed.

  • Leadership plays an important role in guiding diverse groups of people to make an organization successful.
  • The best leaders not only accept responsibility; they take proactive steps to fix the root cause of the problem.
  • Successful organizations identify, nurture and groom individuals who exhibit key leadership characteristics.
By Michael G. Murphy
HNN columnist

I’m always amazed at the number of ways leadership is given credit or blamed for the success or failure of just about everything.

If something goes right, was it due to the success of leadership? Conversely, if something goes wrong, was it due to a failure of leadership or some other factor? You can be sure that when something goes right, there will be people lining up to claim credit for the success. When something goes wrong, there will be just as many people trying to blame someone else for the failure.

Recognizing when a leadership failure has occurred is important to two groups of people. The first group is comprised of historians that take delight in documenting the failures of others with the benefit of hindsight. The second group is comprised of people who have the courage to initiate and implement the appropriate action to put the organization back on a successful track.

Michael G. Murphy

Most organizations rely on groups of diverse people coming together to do all kinds of things. Leadership plays an important role in how well these groups of diverse people interact, understand each other and are motivated to do the things that are important to the success of the organization. In our diverse culture, leadership is even more important because not everyone understands their working environment or is motivated to improve it in the same way.

Leadership may not be important to the individual running a small bed-and-breakfast where the individual does everything from advertising to changing the linens and fixing the plumbing. This individual’s success or failure may rest on who happens to show up and how often. The only person who cares or is impacted by the outcome of this operation is the individual.

Leadership is very important to the organization employing a larger group of people trying to run a hotel or organization of any size. The success or failure of these organizations may depend on how effectively person “A” does the marketing, how well person “B” maintains the property and the level of service provided by persons “C,” “D” and “E.” In a group such as this, each person must efficiently, effectively and consistently play their roles. When they don’t, things can start to fall apart and go wrong, sometimes very quickly. When things start to go wrong, everyone in the organization may be impacted. The consequences might be more than adverse; they might also personally and economically devastate a lot of people.

The leadership of any group and at all levels of an organization should:

Be open to the possibility that the current leadership might be the problem.
Expect the best in people, but be prepared to deal with the worst in them, too.
Advance solutions in a positive way consistent with the goals of the group.
Listen and value communication.
Educate as necessary to acquire and maintain the knowledge necessary to play your role.
Act in a moral and ethical manner.
Develop/appreciate the vision and purpose for the organization.
Energize and motivate the group.
Responsibility: accept it and move on.

Successful organizations identify, nurture and groom individuals who exhibit these leadership characteristics. They seek to reinforce the structure and values of the organization to promote leadership in a principled way throughout the organization. They base advancement decisions on how well individuals demonstrate leadership characteristics, not just on how well someone does their job or how smart someone might be. When things start to go wrong, individuals in leadership positions look inward for solutions before looking outward placing blame on others.

Successful organizations are always in a proactive state of trying to avoid failure while promoting success. Just doing something OK may not be acceptable when you are capable of doing something much better. These organizations are always challenging everyone at all levels to continually improve.

Recognizing when leadership has failed might not be easy at first, but it should get clearer with a little objective thought and honest questioning about how well the organization addresses the leadership characteristics noted above.

You most likely will come to the conclusion that leadership failures of some kind exist throughout almost every organization. The real question is whether you are the historian or someone who is willing to demonstrate the leadership necessary to do something.

I’m an optimist. I believe every organization has the ability to take the appropriate steps to create higher performing groups, improve business and make the changes necessary to get back on a track toward success. Recognizing and promoting good leadership characteristics and the willingness to take action when necessary are just as important as recognizing when leadership has failed.

Michael G. Murphy is a Principal of Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates, Inc. (Atlanta). He has over 32 years of experience in the design of hospitality, residential, office, mixed-use, institutional, retail and other projects both domestically and internationally. He is a Director of the firm's Singapore office where he managed projects throughout Asia in the mid-1990s during the four years he lived there. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects, is a LEED Accredited Professional and is a board member of the Atlanta Hospitality Alliance. As a proponent for sustainable design, Mike’s projects employ many principles associated with respecting how a building relates to its social, contextual, and environmental settings. Creating a sense of place and good architecture do not have to be sacrificed when reaching for sustainable design solutions. He was Principal-In-Charge of several residential and hospitality projects that pursued and acquired LEED certifications. Mike received an Associate Degree in Architectural Engineering from Wentworth Institute of Technology and a Bachelor of Architecture Degree from the University of Tennessee.

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