Beware of “High-Level Dumb” and Toxic Leaders

At every level of any operation, strategy is indeed “war on a map” – it is the plan on paper. Great strategies arise from intense discussion and deliberation that take into account internal strengths and weaknesses and external threats and opportunities of the organization.

This thorough analysis provides insights that can identify important strategic opportunities. Organizational leaders play an important role in formulating business strategies and setting the right environment and course of action for their successful execution.

I quote some of the wise words of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military theorist and author of the best selling book Art of War:

“Now the general is the bulwark of the state. If the bulwark is complete at all points, the state will surely be strong. If the bulwark is defective, the state will certainly be weak.

If the army is confused and suspicious, neighbouring rulers will take advantage of this and cause trouble. This is simply bringing anarchy into the army and flinging victory away”.

Applied to business, leaders are the safeguard through which the organization achieves its goals and objectives. They are the shepherds leading their flock into greener pastures and protecting them against unwanted attack. Failure to do so will have destructive impact on the organization.

However, to successfully formulate and deploy winning strategies, leaders must have full knowledge and understanding of the situations surrounding their organizations. The situation could be declining turnover, a higher staff turnover rate, declining market share, lower employee morale etc.

Fully understanding the ins and outs of the situation will help leaders avoid acting “high-level dumb”. Acting on gut-feeling is a full recipe for disaster.

Many at times we have seen leaders listen to their own voices and perform actions that have often resulted in catastrophic outcomes. For example, prior to the financial collapse of 2008, the leaders of most financial institutions in the western world often deemed themselves “too big to fail”.

They were too confident of their decisions which many at times excluded risk management to the extent that their combined actions came close to creating a financial collapse worldwide. Poor decision-making in a few countries had a crippling ripple effect in other countries. This just shows how today’s global economies are more connected than before.

Leaders failed to ask the right questions because of wrong behaviours and assumptions, wrong questions led to wrong answers and wrong answers ultimately led to wrong actions because of ill-conceived decision-making.

When leaders do not ask the right questions, the answers do not make any difference, creating “high-level dumb” situations. Leaders need to know and understand that they are the pillars of their organizations and employees choose either to lean on them for direction and support or leave them to drown on their own. As the saying goes, “Perish at your own risk”.

Many leaders have created “high-level dumb” situations by micro-managing their subordinates. Micro-managing does more harm to the organization than do good. When subordinates are constantly checked upon, their morale, confidence and focus is negatively affected resulting in low productivity.

No subordinate can operate at a level of competency when the boss supervises every detail. When management is incompetent, good people simply “fire their boss” by leaving the organization. Higher turnover rates can be a signal of trouble.

Leaders have also been known to create “high-level dumb” situations by interfering with the employee’s administration without knowledge of the internal operations, structures and processes of the employee. Many leaders do not take time to understand the process flow of employee’s tasks. They only show their faces when something goes wrong and are quick to point the blame finger.

Such behaviour often causes employees to be perplexed. Sometimes the leaders run operations by remote control. They know not the difference between orders and instructions and use the “carrot and stick” approach to lead. Their orders are to be obeyed instantly and not get questioned.

Environments like these have long term devastating effects. Staff become demotivated, frustrated, productivity drops down and competitors will take advantage of this and edge few steps ahead of the organization.

For example, they can poach star employees and offer them a stimulating work environment. Leaders need to always remember that a happy employee is a productive and loyal employee.

Lastly, “high-level dumb” situations are also created because of a leader’s tendency to cling to outworn tradition, reject or ignore information, underestimate competitors and indecisiveness.

Too often, incompetent leaders resist new information because it might cause them to change their course of direction. The greater the impact of the new information, the more strenuously it is resisted because if changes must be made, then they were wrong before.

To avoid creating “high-level dumb” situations, leaders must utilize good information sources when making organizational decisions. Accurate and trusted information will help when deciding what courses of action to take.

In addition, leaders must also plan a united effort with employees by securing a common belief at all levels in a common vision; take advantage of opportunities by always preparing to act when others are unprepared and decentralize as well as delegate authority so that employees feel empowered to perform at their highest potential.

Great leaders know and understand that leadership is about people. They are always fostering environments where their subordinates can grow and go on to do great things. On the other hand, bad leaders are the toxic substance of the organization.

The kind of leaders always talked and complained about in hallways, at coffee machines, printing and photocopying machines and in canteens. These toxic leaders are always creating “high-level dumb” situations and “stay-away from” environments. No wonder such leaders experience high staff turnover.

As a leader, are you the go-to or stay-away from person in your organization? Today, present a challenge to yourself to become the positive change agent and champion for your organization.

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