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The Number One Reason Leaders Fail

A word before we get started. As you read this post, it will be tempting to think of other people and their stuckness. That’s because it’s much easier (and much more fun) to spot problems in other people than it is in ourselves. I invite you to focus on yourself from this point on, because we all have limiting patterns of belief and behaviour that hold us back. Even you.

We like to pretend it’s some kind of deep dark mystery: Why do leaders fail?

The answer couldn’t be more simple: Because they prioritize comfort over truth.

At the very core of a stuck leader is an overattachment to their needs for Certainty and Significance. Certainty and Significance are basic human needs, we all have them and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. Our need for certainty is simply the need to feel safe and secure. It can lead us to positive behaviors such as planning for our future or being careful with our credit cards. Our need for significance is simply the need to feel that we matter, and to be validated as human beings. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it can drive us to do big things with our lives.

The problem happens when we develop an overattachment to these needs. Attachment to certainty can mean we’re not willing to put ourselves out there, or that we don’t want to try new things, or that we avoid all forms of risk. Attachment to significance can lead us to dominate conversations, shut out opinions that conflict with our own, or to expect or demanding special treatment (if you ever want to see significance at play in the wild, go to an airport and watch a bunch of business class passengers board a flight that’s been delayed an hour).

When we’re overly attached to certainty and significance, it’s usually because we’re operating from a fear state. Most of us have three basic fears in our lives: fear of loss, fear of less and fear of never. We fear we’ll lose our job or our partner, we fear we’ll have less money, status or time, and we fear we’ll never get the job we want, or the house we want, or to do the things we want to do.

And at the heart of all these fears, is the biggest never of them all – that we’ll never be good enough. It’s there in all of us. You, me, everyone at your office, Vladimir Putin, Tom Hanks… at our core, we’re all afraid that we’re not enough. This is of course, a lie. But it’s a lie that is not only devastating, it’s core-shaking. Fear begets more fear.

When we’re operating from a fear state, we begin to prioritize comfort (aka: certainty and significance) over truth of what’s really happening around us.

When we prioritize comfort over truth, we fall out of alignment with our core values. These are the qualities of life and character that are most important to us. They are essential to who we are as individuals, so not being aligned with them is a big deal.

  • If you’re a person who values creativity, but you’re prioritizing comfort over truth, you’re not going to do very well because great creativity is rarely comfortable.

  • If you value integrity, but you are subjugating the truth in favor of comfort, you’re not going to feel very good about yourself.

  • And if you value personal connection, yet you constantly prioritize your needs above the truth of those around you, you’re not going to be very happy.

When we prioritize comfort over truth, and we allow it to pull us out of alignment with the things we value most in life, we are betraying ourselves.

And this is where the trouble starts.

We’re in what I call a contractive state. Nothing good happens from a contractive state. We become reactive, defensive and judgemental of both ourselves and others. Greed is born here. As are addictions.

In our contractive state we become entrenched in negative patterns of belief and behaviour. We're convinced there’s only one way of doing things. We adopt an us vs. them mentality – and the “them” can just as easily be our employees and customers as it can be our competitors. And, we can become fixated on a single will – the cult-like belief that there’s only one way of thinking.

This is where things get really bad.

Overattachment to significance and certainty means stuck leaders love top-down authority. They impose unnecessary or unproductive rules and regulations to give themselves the illusion of control. They develop an aversion to any form of tension or conflict in the organization, leading them to create siloed work environments and discourage cross-departmental conversations. After all, if no one is talking to anyone, there’s no arguing and no debating. Structure and control must be maintained at all costs. There’s little tolerance for dissent. Transparency decreases.

Rather than focusing on how they and the organization may thrive, their focus is on merely surviving. This creates a gap between what they’re doing and what they want to be doing. The self-betrayal deepens.

This is when the leader becomes well and truly stuck.

And this is how stuck leaders create results that no one wants.

What’s a leader to do? Well, you can start here.

P.S. Hey there! If you'd like to learn more about getting and staying unstuck, sign-up for my weekly newsletter (green box at top right of your screen on desktop, or under this post on mobile) so you'll never miss a post. I promise I'm not a spammy nightmare. One per week, and that's it.

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