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Zenger and Folkman's 10 fatal leadership flaws

Are you prepared to recognize your own weaknesses?

Have you ever worked for a leader who didn't learn from his mistakes, who made key decisions without involving his team, or who resisted new ideas?

These are all common mistakes made by ineffective leaders. They can demoralize and disengage a team, limit progress, and even derail an organization.

As a leader, it's important to be aware of common leadership mistakes, so that you can avoid them. In this article, we'll look at the 10 most common flaws, and we'll discuss what you can do to avoid each one.

About the Tool

Leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman used two studies to identify their 10 fatal leadership flaws.

In the first study, they collected 360-Degree Feedback on more than 450 Fortune 500 executives. They then identified the most commonly shared characteristics of 31 of those executives who were fired over the three-year period that followed.

In the second study, they analyzed 360-degree feedback data from more than 11,000 leaders, and singled out the bottom 10 percent. They compared the ineffective leaders with the fired ones, and, from this, identified the 10 most common leadership flaws.

They published their findings in a June 2009 Harvard Business Review article, "Ten Fatal Flaws That Derail Leaders."

Their 10 flaws are:

  1. Lacking energy and enthusiasm.

  2. Settling for mediocre performance.

  3. Lacking clear vision.

  4. Using poor judgment.

  5. Being unwilling to collaborate.

  6. Not "walking the talk."

  7. Resisting new ideas.

  8. Not learning from mistakes.

  9. Lacking interpersonal skills.

  10. Failing to develop others.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review. From "Ten Fatal Flaws That Derail Leaders" by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, June 2009. Copyright © 2009 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

Overcoming the 10 Fatal Flaws

Let's now look at each of Zenger and Folkman's 10 flaws, and discuss what you can do to overcome each one.

1. Lacking Energy and Enthusiasm

Successful leaders are full of enthusiasm, and their energy is contagious. They throw themselves into everything that they do, and this energetic approach engages the people around them.

Leaders who lack energy and enthusiasm rarely support new initiatives. This can be because they fear the additional workload, or because they simply don't have the energy to inspire their teams to change.

To overcome this fatal flaw, identify why your energy and enthusiasm levels are low. Possible causes include feeling burned out, lacking purpose in your work, being overwhelmed by your role, or being physically unfit.

Take our self-test to find out whether you're suffering from career burnout. If this is why you lack energy, recover by taking some time off.

Maybe you need to find meaning and purpose in your work again. Remember, every role exists for a reason. How do you help other people and make a difference?

Regain your enthusiasm by leading with kindness, and by making an effort to help someone every day. You can also use the 5 Whys technique to discover why your energy is so low.

2. Settling for Mediocre Performance

The best leaders understand that learning and development is a lifelong journey. They don't strive for perfection, but they do try to be the best that they can be, because their team depends on them.

Poor leaders can settle for mediocre performance from themselves and from their team if they get too comfortable in their position, or they may lack the desire and energy to keep developing their skills.

To overcome this leadership flaw, rediscover your passion for leadership, work to understand what customers want and motivate your team to deliver this. Remember to give plenty of feedback when team members aren't meeting expectations.

3. Lacking Clear Vision

Successful leaders have a distinct vision of where they want their team or organization to go. When you communicate this vision in a clear and compelling way, your team is likely to become committed to making it a reality.

Ineffective leaders believe that their job is to "steer the ship." However, someone has to be in charge of where that ship goes!

To overcome this leadership flaw, first identify what your vision is. Write a mission and vision statement for your team's next project, or for your entire organization.

Ask yourself what you ultimately want to achieve. This depends on knowing your organization's strategy – our articles on Lafley and Martin’s Five-Step Strategy Model and Practical Business Planning can help you to think this through.

Next, conduct a VMOST Analysis to determine the activities that will be most useful in delivering this vision of the future.

Last, communicate your vision to everyone on your team. Make your mission and vision statement public, and get feedback from your team. Remember, these are the people who can make your vision a reality. They need to feel engaged and excited about their destination!

4. Using Poor Judgment

Leaders who lack judgment often make decisions that are not in their team or organization's best interests. They might rush their decision making, or they make decisions that benefit themselves or another stakeholder – but not the organization itself.

Evaluate any decisions that you're currently making, and make sure you've considered whether any conflict of interest exists. Do you have a personal interest in this decision? Will you, or someone that you know, receive any unearned benefits from it?

If so, declare this openly, and suggest someone else who's better suited to make the decision. In the long run, being transparent will strengthen your reputation and credibility.

To make good decisions, use effective problem solving and decision makingtechniques, carefully analyze risks, and use techniques such as Scenario Analysis and the Business Model Canvas to develop the commercial awarenessyou need to solve problems effectively.

Also, seek opinions from people with different backgrounds and experience. Be open to differing views, and consider your options carefully.

5. Being Unwilling to Collaborate

The best leaders work well with other people and value the opinions and input of team members. They understand that bouncing ideas off colleagues and collaborating with others can result in better thought-out plans, compared with decisions that they make on their own.

Leaders who aren't willing to collaborate do themselves – and their teams – a disservice, because they miss the energy and potential that arise when people work together.

Leaders who "go it alone" might fear competitors within the organization. They may be poor delegators, and they may struggle to trust anyone else with a task or project.

Whatever the reason, it's vital that you know how to work effectively as part of a group, and that you seek out the opinions and support of your team.

Be a good team player by first understanding how you can help other people, and how they can help you. Keep the promises you make, be active and involved, and communicate with your team. Support your people by praising their hard work and by pitching in when someone falls behind.

6. Not "Walking the Talk"

The best leaders are those who lead by example and "walk the talk." They're the first to demonstrate new behaviors, and adapt to change. They show their team members what it's like to work with honesty, integrity and commitment. These are the leaders that people want to follow.

The opposite of this is someone who follows the "do as I say, not as I do" or the "why have a dog and bark yourself" management philosophies. This type of manager has a dispiriting and demoralizing effect on a team.

To overcome this flaw, lead by example. For instance, if you ask your team to come in early to work on a project, make sure that you arrive first. Demonstrate the behaviors and characteristics that you want to see in others through your own actions. Your people will soon follow your lead.

7. Resisting New Ideas

Effective leaders understand that change is an inevitable part of growth and success, so they're willing to embrace the unknown and try new things. They know that evolution can't happen in an organization that resists change.

Leaders who resist new ideas limit innovation, slow growth, lower morale, and cause their organization to stagnate. These "naysayers" typically fear change, or they are unwilling to put in the work that goes along with making improvements and being innovative.

To overcome this leadership flaw, encourage your team members to come to you with new ideas. Instead of instantly judging or dismissing a suggestion, take a few minutes to look at the possibilities. Cope with change by using tools like Risk Analysis and Impact Analysis to understand how the idea could succeed or fail, and by adjusting plans to make them likely to succeed.

It can also be useful to understand what emotions you could experience as you go through a voluntary change. Our article on Kelley and Conner's Emotional Cycle of Change explains this process, and it offers strategies that you can use to cope.

8. Not Learning From Mistakes

Most of us work hard to avoid making mistakes. However, errors can teach us valuable lessons if we study each situation and understand where we went wrong. This willingness and curiosity help us grow and become wiser.

Leaders who don't learn from their mistakes are destined to make the same errors again and again. Sometimes they blame other people instead of taking responsibility, which can damage their relationships, affect their career opportunities and even create a blame culture in their organization.

To overcome this leadership flaw, look back at some mistakes that you've made, either in your work or in a relationship with a friend or colleague. What happened? What can you learn from these situations, so that you don't make these mistakes again? Ask yourself: if you faced the same choices now, what would you do differently? (You can do this systematically by keeping a journal.)

Feedback is also an important tool for learning from your mistakes. Ask trusted friends or colleagues to use the Situation – Behavior – Impact Feedback Toolwhen they see that you've made a mistake. This approach allows people to give you focused advice on what you did, so that you see how you can improve.

9. Lacking Interpersonal Skills

Leaders who have strong interpersonal skills communicate honestly and openly with others. They're aware of how their words and actions affect people, and they work hard to control their emotions when they feel stressed or upset.

Leaders who lack interpersonal skills, or "soft skills" , don't know how to communicate effectively and relate to others. They might be abrasive or aloof, lose their temper regularly, or come across as bullies.

To overcome this leadership flaw, take our interactive quiz, "How Emotionally Intelligent are You?", and work on developing your Emotional Intelligence.

You'll also strengthen your soft skills by learning how to manage your emotions at work, building trust with the people you work with, becoming an effective communicator, and developing personal accountability.

10. Failing to Develop Others

The best leaders understand that true success occurs when everyone on the team works together. They're committed to getting the best from the people around them, which, in turn, lifts them up as well.

Leaders who fail to develop others only look out for themselves. They're not interested in expanding their team members' knowledge and skills, perhaps because they see this as a "threat" to their expertise and power.

To overcome this leadership flaw, first take our interactive quiz, "How Well do you Develop Your People?", to get specific advice on how you can improve your team development skills.

Next, sit down with your team members individually and get to know their developmental needs, or give them a Training Needs Assessment to discover where they need to improve. Make a commitment to spend time each week helping someone in your team reach his or her goals.

Key Points

Leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman used two studies to identify 10 common flaws in poor leaders. They published their findings in the June 2009 Harvard Business Review article, "Ten Fatal Flaws That Derail Leaders."

These 10 flaws are as follows:

  1. Lacking energy and enthusiasm.

  2. Settling for mediocre performance.

  3. Lacking clear vision.

  4. Using poor judgment.

  5. Being unwilling to collaborate.

  6. Not "walking the talk."

  7. Resisting new ideas.

  8. Not learning from mistakes.

  9. Lacking interpersonal skills.

  10. Failing to develop others.

As a leader, it's important to know how to identify each of these flaws, so that you can overcome them. If you make one of these common mistakes, there is plenty that you can do to avoid it in the future and become a better leader.

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