The Peter Principle, first formulated by Laurence J. Peter, predicts that you will get promoted up to your level of incompetence. For most people, that’s far too late. Because when leaders get promoted to their level of incompetence, they lose their confidence. They become stuck. Worse, they make incompetent decisions that others in the organization are forced to live with.
The bottom line is that what derails most leaders at senior leadership levels has less to do with skillsets and more to do with underlying behavioral tendencies of which the leader might not be aware. As a result of these tendencies, the perceptions others have of their leaders are often misaligned with a leader's’ intentions. In the senior leadership world where there is more complexity and chaos, there’s too much at stake to risk this misalignment.
In our executive coaching programs, we've observed four common and costly career behaviors that derail senior leaders.
Here they are.
Overly Focused on Results
Leaders who are overly focused on results and don’t emphasize relationships enough tend to derail themselves though the following behavioral tendencies:
Controlling: This strong autocratic tendency to control one’s environment, speak up about problems, and challenge the system can be extremely positive. At its worst, though, it can lead to such negative outcomes as a lack of delegation. The big issue with this at senior levels is not just the lack of handing over a task but also the inability to scale a business and operate at the right level. The collateral damage to the people around these leaders includes not feeling valued and trusted, which eventually leads to disengagement.
Arrogance is a tendency when overly results-oriented leaders overuse their strength of confidence. People experience this behavior as egocentric and superior, and this destructive tendency shuts down conversation and innovation (after all, the arrogant leader already knows the answer!) and can ruin relationships. For example, we recently coached an executive and co-founder of a fast-growing high-tech company. His leading questions often steered people to his pre-formed conclusions instead of opening a space for input from others. Arrogance perpetuates a win-lose orientation, where the arrogant leader feels a need to come out on top. The danger, of course, is that the outcome of these pre-decided decisions may compromise the business.
Overly Focused on Relationships
Then there are leaders who are overly focused on relationships and not enough on results. They risk experiencing these career derailers:
Passivity is when leaders don’t voice their perspective and too often defer to others. They justify this tendency with statements like, “I only want to speak when I have something meaningful to say.” I see this tendency most in humble leaders, people who don’t need to be in the spotlight. That is refreshing in small doses, but its overuse makes those leaders seem like rollovers, people who don’t control or lead, who don’t step up or know what they’ve accomplished. They miss opportunities. Overly passive leaders don’t instill confidence in their peers or in the executives above them.
Avoidance is similar to passivity, but it’s mostly about how a leader responds in conflict. At senior-leader levels, leaders have to be willing to take risks and put their perspective on the line. In many ways, it’s a vulnerable behavioral set. Sometimes those risks are in accountability conversations. Other times it’s when they need to step up to provide a perspective. That’s what they are paid to do. But with this tendency, they prefer to avoid those conversations, and they fail to hold people to the high standards that are necessary for moving the business forward.
What are your potential career limiters?
Do you tend to be overly focused on results or relationships?
You don’t have to get stuck in any of these behavioral tendencies. They are avoidable.
For a path forward, consider checking out my latest book Unite! The 4 Mindset Shifts for Senior Leaders.