FIVE Deeply Destructive Mistakes That Suggest the Answer Is No (and How to Stop Making Them)

"Unusually excellent by john hamm"John Hamm, author of the new book Unusually Excellent, explains why your employees may not see you as a leader…and what you can do to change their hearts and minds.

There are people in every organization you know whose titles indicate they are leaders. Often, and unfortunately, their employees beg to differ. Oh, they don’t say it directly, not to the boss’s face, anyway. They say it with their ho-hum performance, their games of avoidance, their dearth of enthusiasm. Leaders—real leaders who have mastered their craft—don’t preside over such lackluster followers. If reading this makes you squirm with recognition, leadership expert John Hamm says you may have a problem lurking.

You’re really just masquerading. You haven’t yet earned the right to lead.

“When times are good, not-so-great leaders can get by,” says Hamm, author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, February 2011, ISBN: 978-0-47092843-1, $24.95, “They’re cushioned by a surplus of cash, and their missteps are covered up by the thrill of top-line growth, which hides a multitude of sins. But when the cloak of prosperity falls away, their mediocrity is ruthlessly exposed.

“Real leadership equity is only earned, not bestowed,” he adds. “Just because you have been granted authority doesn’t mean you’re getting the full, collaborative engagement of your employees. You may have their bodies and time forty or fifty hours a week, but until you earn the privilege, from their point of view, you’ll never have their hearts and minds.”

Hamm has spent his career studying the practitioners of great leadership via his work as a venture capitalist, board member, high-level consultant, and professor of leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. In his new book, he shares what he has learned and brings those lessons to life with real-world stories.

Unusually Excellent is a powerful back-to-basics reference book that offers both seasoned and aspiring leaders a framework for understanding and a guide for applying the battle-tested fundamentals of leadership at every stage of their careers.

“These aren’t radically new ideas,” asserts Hamm. “Human nature hasn’t changed that much over the millennia, so neither have the core laws of leadership. It’s just that in the heat of the day-to-day battle, leaders inevitably lose their grip on the basic principles of leadership. In other cases, they never learned these fundamentals or mastered them earlier in their career. And finally, sad to say, some people just aren’t cut out to lead and need to understand why.”

“Normal” leadership is a complex system of behaviors that can tolerate a lot of little mistakes, explains Hamm. Extraordinary leadership cannot.

Think about it this way: Anyone can snap a photo that looks okay or cook a meal that satiates hunger. However, when an award-winning photographer takes the picture, or a five-star chef prepares dinner, anyone can tell a master has been at work. The same is true of leadership. The small deficiencies in how the novice leads, as opposed to the unusually excellent professional, create a radical difference in the outcome.

So how can you tell whether you really are a great leader in the minds of your employees—or whether, to paraphrase the old television commercial, you’re just playing one on TV? Unfortunately, the depth and breadth of the mistakes you make often tell the true tale.

Below, excerpted from Unusually Excellent, Hamm reveals ten of the most common, deeply destructive mistakes organizational leaders make:

MISTAKE #1: “Role playing” authenticity rather than living it. Authenticity is about owning your failures and shortcomings. It’s about allowing others to really know you, vulnerabilities, warts, and all. It’s about having the guts to seek feedback from others in a sincere and genuine fashion. And it’s about being able to maintain your authentic self in a situation of meaningful consequence—where your decisions affect others, sometimes on a grand scale and sometimes in very personal or dramatic ways.

Knowing who you really are and holding true to yourself in the most difficult moments is the “ground zero” of leadership credibility. It’s the only way to create the trusted connections you need to lead with real influence. Unfortunately, leaders stumble for a variety of reasons: They get scared and veer away at the last moment, or they sacrifice the truth on the altar of protecting other people’s feelings, or they simply seek to avoid the pain of conflict.

“When we make the decision to compromise our authenticity, we end up delivering a message that may feel ‘easier’ but that isn’t truly what we want or need to say,” explains Hamm. “Deception conspires with fear and seduces us down a dark road of believing we can ‘fake it,’ just this one time and it will all be okay.

“But the downstream impact of making such a choice in a moment of stress or carelessness can be devastating,” he adds. “For one thing, it compromises the integrity of that all-important communications channel between leader and follower by changing expectations about the behavior of both. Worse, it sets a precedent for this type of authentic behavior that over time can trap a leader into an expectation or pattern of always behaving that way—and over the course of years this is a soul-destroying situation.”

MISTAKE #2: Underestimating the impact of small acts of dishonesty. In his book, Hamm describes an incident that took place at a famous, fast-growing technology company. A young, inexperienced, but talented associate had what he thought was a plan for a powerful new marketing initiative. So he asked the CMO to broker a meeting with the CEO to make a presentation on the subject. The CMO agreed, and the meeting took place.

During the presentation the CEO was polite, if noncommittal. He gave the presenter a sort of passively accepting feedback—“Nice point,” “Interesting,” and so on—and wrapped up the meeting quickly, thanking the presenter for his initiative. But the CMO could sense a duplicity in the CEO’s behavior and attitude as the parties all headed back to their respective offices. Then, ten minutes after the meeting, the CEO called the CMO into his office and said, in essence, “That presentation was absolutely terrible. That guy’s an idiot. I want you to fire him, today.”

“The story of the firing spread (as it always does) throughout the company, morale slipped, and the CMO never completely trusted his boss again,” writes Hamm. “The CEO’s reputation for trustworthiness had been wounded forever. The wreckage from one seemingly small act of dishonesty was strewn all over the company and could never be completely cleaned up.”

MISTAKE #3: Being two-faced (and assuming others won’t notice). In another scenario from Hamm’s book, a CEO had one executive on his team whom he really trusted and in whom he could confide. One day, a couple of other members of that company’s executive team made a presentation at a board meeting that didn’t go so well. Later, as they were walking down a hallway, the CEO turned to his trusted executive and said, “We need to get rid of those guys. They were a disaster at the board meeting—they embarrassed me.”

But then nothing happened. Life at the company went on as before, and the targeted executives remained in their jobs. In the months that passed, the trusted executive found himself in meetings attended by both the CEO and the targeted executives. And it was as if the whole incident had never happened. The CEO joked with the men, complimented them on their work, and treated them as long-term team members.

As the trusted executive watched this, he asked himself: Did the boss mean what he said? Does he ever mean what he says? Did he change his mind—and when did that happen? Or is he too gutless to follow through with his plans? And if he’s willing to stab those guys in the back and then pretend to be their trusting partner, how do I know he hasn’t been doing the same thing with me? Just how duplicitous is this guy?

“Such are the dangers of shooting from the hip without realizing that a communication such as the one just described does not qualify as a ‘casual’ comment—once said, it must be resolved, and if it is not, there is a lingering odor that in one way or another, will remain smelly until fixed,” writes Hamm.

MISTAKE #4: Squelching the flow of bad news. Do you (or others under you) shoot the messenger when she brings you bad news? If so, you can be certain that the messenger’s priority is not bringing you the information you need: It’s protecting her own hide. That’s why in most organizations good news zooms to the top, while bad news—data that reveals goals missed, problems lurking, or feedback that challenges or defeats our strategy—flows uphill like molasses in January.

Unusually excellent leaders understand this reality, says Hamm. To combat it they work hard to build a primary and insatiable demand for the unvarnished facts, the raw data, the actual measurements, the honest feedback, the real information.

“We must install a confidence and a trust that leaders in the organization value the facts, the truth, and the speed of delivery, not the judgments or interpretations of ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and that messengers are valued, not shot,” writes Hamm. “If we can do this then the entire behavior pattern of performance information flow will change for the better…Very few efforts will yield the payback associated with improving the speed and accuracy of the information you need most to make difficult or complex decisions.”

MISTAKE #5: Punishing “good failures.” Great organizations encourage risk-taking. Why? Because innovation requires it. There can be no reward without risk. But if your employees take a risk and fail, and you come down on them like a hammer, guess what? They’ll never risk anything again. Unusually excellent leaders deliberately create high-risk, low-cost environments—a.k.a. cultures of trust—where people don’t live in fear of the consequences of failure.

Hamm says a digital camera is the perfect analogy to the kind of culture you want to create.

“There is no expense associated with a flawed digital photograph—financial or otherwise,” he explains. “You just hit the ‘delete’ button, and it disappears. No wasted film, slides, or prints. And we are aware of this relationship between mistakes and consequences when we pick up the camera—so we click away, taking many more photos digitally than we would have in a world of costly film. Because we know failure is free, we take chances, and in that effort we often get that one amazing picture that we wouldn’t have if we were paying for all the mistakes.”

In Part TWO John Hamm shares Five More Deeply Destructive Mistakes

John Hamm is one of the top leadership experts in Silicon Valley. He was named one of the country’s Top 100 venture capitalists in 2009 by AlwaysOn and has led investments in many successful high-growth companies as a partner at several Bay Area VC firms. Hamm has also been a CEO, a board member at over thirty companies, and a CEO adviser and executive coach to senior leaders at companies such as Documentum, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, TaylorMade-adidas Golf and McAfee. John teaches leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. Learn more about his book Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership at: