At Johns Hopkins Medicine, as at many organizations, we take nurturing the next generation of leaders very seriously. But we’ve found that some people who seemed promising as up-and-coming leaders didn’t turn out to be effective in that role, despite what had been stellar careers up until then.
To be sure, this is an unusually demanding environment for leaders, not only because of our high expectations for performance, but also because we expect most of our leaders to have an impact on multiple realms, including health care delivery, research, education and administration—including health care environments outside the U.S.
Plus, having raw leadership potential is by no means a guarantee of success—it just earns a position in the starting gate. In most cases where we found leaders running into trouble, they were actually wrestling with particular challenges that are unique to leadership roles.
The good news is that these challenges can be overcome, especially for organizations and would-be leaders who learn to anticipate these potential traps. Here are the five biggest leadership traps we’ve identified:
1) Focusing on technical skills instead of leadership skills. Candidates for leadership positions often come to the fore by virtue of being very good in some sort of specialized role. At Johns Hopkins they are usually outstanding clinician-researchers or administrative managers, but they could be from any part of the organization. Those skills can continue to come in handy in a leadership role, but they’re not the key skills needed to succeed as a leader. Effective leaders have to loosen their reliance on the skills that have gotten them this far, and develop a new set of skills, such as setting a vision and inspiring others to drive toward that vision, needed to effect organizational change.
2) Not seeing the forest for the trees. Being the leader of an organization requires confronting what might be a large set of challenges, each of them associated with a great deal of information, be it related to operations, finances, marketing, organizational structure, and much more. It’s easy for managers who are moving into leadership roles to be overwhelmed by trying to deal with all of them. Successful leaders take only the most important information from all of the components and synthesize them into the big picture that is the proper focus of a leader.
3) Jumping in too quickly. When someone has earned a leadership position, his or her first instinct is often to act. Jumping right in doesn’t always fail, but it often does. For one thing, people are typically apprehensive about what a new leader might do, and might be apt to view any immediate action as abrasive and ill-thought-out. For another, understanding the true nature of the challenges facing an organization, and of the people who will be implementing the solutions, usually requires time. It’s worth taking that time, and easing into decisive action rather than leaping into it.
4) Trying to get everyone to think the same way. A leader sets the vision, and picks the team to implement that vision. It might seem that the best team is one in which everyone has the same style, approach and understanding of the problem as the leader. But in fact, a team’s strength often comes from a diversity of these elements. If the team perfectly reflects the leader’s thinking, then he or she will be much more prone to going down the wrong path with no one to point it out or bring to bear different approaches and perspective.
5) Not playing the long game. The team has to get measurable results in a reasonably fast time frame, and part of a leader’s job is to hold the team to that. But leaders have to be much more patient with their own progress. If they’re doing their jobs as the setter of organizational vision and driver of significant change, it might be many months or even years before they see the real results of their efforts—and things may well get worse before they get better. That can mean that in the short term many people think they’re not being successful, and become impatient with the apparent lack of results. If the right vision is in place, leaders need to be thick-skinned and trust their decisions, or no one else will. It doesn’t mean the vision is right, but if it’s wrong, it’s trouble no matter what—so faith is important, even during those times when others hesitate to offer it. It’s one of the qualities that separate leaders from followers.