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The Unvarnished Truth: Why Some Leaders Get Ahead and Others Don’t

The Unvarnished Truth: Why Some Leaders Get Ahead and Others Don’t

After over 20 years of working with Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies in almost every industry sector, I have come to a conclusion that promotions are not always fair.

I have worked with leaders at every level, including many at the C suite. Leaders are told over and over, “It’s not the what, it’s the how.” The emphasis is on respect for diversity, inclusion, cultural fit, and treating others with dignity. Whole industries are devoted to provide training, development, and coaching to address the “right” set of leadership skills.

Leadership skills matter. Emotional intelligence and embodying diversity matters. But how much does it matter relative to your advancement within your organization?

Certainly if you can read your audience, know how to pivot, demonstrate great collaboration, and respect others, you make life better for those around you. You also are viewed as a leader who is agile, bringing out the best in others. Your employee engagement scores will be much higher than those who lead without regard for others or who bark orders at their colleagues.

So, what truly matters? Wake up and pay attention to what I am about to say. Nobody, but nobody teaches you this in school. If you are lucky and have a sage advisor throughout your career, you might figure this out. For the rest of us, we bumble along listening to a myriad of leaders who invest in our future advising us on “how to be.” Be this, now be that.

Often my clients say to me, "How many leadership styles do I need to have?” My response: “As many different leaders that you work with.” It becomes exhausting and sometimes confusing, as leaders have to be so agile and show up differently depending upon on their audience and their mandate.

[Related: Great Leaders Rely on Intuition For Their Most Important Decisions]

I have watched leaders who have mastered the art of leadership and are iconic role models for those emerging high-potential leaders, as well as their peers. These iconic leaders are revered and held in the highest of esteem.

They have excellent partnering skills, build a legendary customer experience, lead transformative change initiatives, plan well for their successor, develop and coach others, and translate their vision into metrics that impact positively on the bottom line. No small order.

I have also watched leaders who make their teams cringe, have the lowest possible employee engagement scores, poor 360 feedback, score abysmally on psychometric measures that capture important leadership traits, and are known for high turnover rates.

It is fascinating because both these types of leaders can be very successful. That is, if you measure success based upon advancement such as nailing the prized projects that have a huge spend with tremendous visibility or quickly ascending to the top of the house.

It sure is a contradiction and mixed message. Sometimes the less-than-stellar leaders do not mirror the promoted culture, and allowances are made. These leaders excel from a promotion point of view, no matter how poor their leadership.

Why does this happen, sometimes all too often? Here is why: They are taken care of or protected by somebody with influence or power within the organization.

[Related: Three Leadership Lessons From the Mountains]

Thankfully, there has been a promising shift with #MeToo and similar movements giving a platform for employees to come forward. At least employees can be more comfortable to voice instances of inappropriate behavior, whether sexual or anything else that is considered assaultive. We have far greater visibility around leaders' behaviors than before. We also still have a ways to go.

Our values should embody care and compassion for others. We should be challenging our employees to recognize that their skills can go beyond what ever they thought was possible. We must do so in a respectful way.

We all want to feel valued. We must also earn the respect from our peers and direct reports. Hopefully, most leaders continue to evolve to be better than they were in their previous role or when they first embarked on their leadership journey. This is not always the case.

Organizations and leaders that protect others, ignoring and reinforcing poor behavior, defy the very brand they say they represent. At the end of the day, the “how” should matter over the "what," but we know that doesn’t always play out. Every one of us has examples where that is not true.

No amount of coaching, training, or leadership development will address these behaviors. These leaders are protected by leaders in positions of power.

Ask yourself if you would have leaders at your dinner table that exemplify behaviors that fly in the face of human values. If the answer is "no," you are at the wrong dinner table.

[Related: Seven Career Tips for Succeeding in Corporate America]

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Cindy Wahler, Ph.D., C. Psych. is a leadership consultant specializing in succession planning and talent management.


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