The Three Most Common Leadership Issues of Executives

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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fruit on a tree

As I have worked with and coached hundreds of executives across dozens of organizations and executive teams, patterns have arisen.

One set of patterns involves three common leadership issues that limit the effectiveness of executives and the organizations they lead and serve.

In fact, just this week, I presented these three common leadership issues to HR leaders who support executives and asked them, “Which of these three are the most common and the biggest issue in your organization.” And, their most common answer was, “all three.”

Let’s dive in. Here are the three most common leadership issues of executives:

1. They operate as doers and not facilitators.

The reason why people rise into executive roles is that they have demonstrated the ability to get things done. In most cases, what has made them successful in their career is that they have been excellent “doers.”

But, when executives operate as “doers” and not “facilitators,” they fail as executives.

Simon Sinek talks about this brilliantly in this video: SIMON SINEK: Leader verus manager.

When executives operate as “doers,” they tend to micromanage, have their hands in too many things, they make sure they are in control so that they feel more certain, and they spend the majority of their time in the weeds and putting out fires.

In fact, I was discussing this with Alan Mulally (former CEO at Ford) recently, and he told me the following story:

I was working with an executive team observing an executive team meeting, and I noticed that the CEO spent 90% of the meeting time talking. After the meeting, I pull the CEO aside and shared my observation and encouraged him to be more of a facilitator. His immediate response was, ‘I get paid $32 million a year to deliver, and you are suggesting that I effectively take a step back and facilitate. That is not making a lot of sense to me.’ Alan’s response was, ‘If you can learn to do that you might get paid $64 million next year.’

To be effective as an executive, leaders need to shift gears and upgrade their internal operating system from doer to facilitator. Information on how to do that is below.

2. They are short-term focused and not long-term focused.

Let me tell you about two executive teams I am working with right now.

The first is a technology company that serves government entities. This means that they do a lot of proposals as a way to win business.

In working with the top three layers of this company, I have had over half of them say the following:

  • I am not clear on what our vision is.
  • We never say “no” to a bid.
  • We are overworked. I am regularly working 70+ hour weeks. I don’t remember the last time I had a weekend.

These are all evidence that the leaders in this organization are more focused on the short-term than the long-term. Long-term oriented companies have clarity on their vision. They are selective about what they bid on. They alter the pace of the organization as needed to ensure the well-being of the organization and employees and to prevent burnout, low performance, and turnover.

The second is a healthcare company. In the past, they rallied around the phrase, “get on the bus.” This was a helpful and unifying rallying cry at the time. In a recent meeting with the top three layers of leaders, they surfaced the following: “I think we are all on a different bus going in different directions.”

This is a byproduct of being short-term focused and not long-term focused.

3. They care more about the fruits than the foundations.

In the work that organizations do, there are fruits of this work. Commonly valued fruits are results, outcomes, revenue, profitability, and stock price. These are lagging indicators.

But, there are also foundations for the work that organizations do. These foundations are things like culture, purpose, strategy, and vision. These are leading indicators.

Too often, I am finding that executives care more about, talk more about, and focus more on the fruits than they do the foundations. When this happens, it sucks the life out of a company. Leaders end up leading through command and control, and employees generally do as little as possible to survive in the environment.

Why are these common issues?

I have come to believe that there are two primary reasons for these issues.

First, many executives have personal insecurities that cause them to care more about doing things in the short-term to get fruits than they are about facilitating foundations for long-term value creation. Evidence of such insecurities can be found in the following statements, all of which I have heard executives say:

  • When I was a child, my best friend was a bike.
  • I started my business to prove others wrong.
  • Deep down, I am not sure I like myself. I chase after success and wins because when I get them, it makes me feel of worth.
  • I am afraid that if I fail, I won’t be respected.

Second, these issues either arise from or are compounded by rather lucrative incentive structures. These structures are generally short-term in nature and are based on fruits rather than foundations.

How can we help executives rise above these common issues?

In order to help executives rise above these common issues, we need to help them address their insecurities and become internally-driven instead of externally-driven.

The only way this can happen is through vertical development.

Unfortunately, most organizations focus almost solely on horizontal development, which is the gaining of knowledge and skills. It is a lot like adding an app onto an iPad. It is helpful because it broadens one’s functionality.

Vertical development, on the other hand, is about upgrading one’s internal operating system to operate with greater levels of cognitive and emotional sophistication. Its very purpose is to help leaders rise above their insecurities and become more internally- and purpose-driven instead of externally- and results-driven.

If you would like to learn more about vertical development, check out the following:

Or, connect with me, and we can have a conversation about how to best elevate your leaders and executives.

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