Are You a Never-Gonna-Get-There Leader?

Apr 29, 2013

 A version of this article first appeared at

It’s an oft-quoted leadership trope that because of his sin in striking the rock twice, Moses never lived to see his people into the Promised Land. That role fell instead to Joshua – despite Moses having dedicated his life to paving the way, including those 40 years spent in the wilderness.

Business leaders can, sadly, befall the same fate – call it the Never-Gonna-Get-There Leader. The saddest part is that unlike Moses, for these perennially unfulfilled leaders, there’s no real reason why it should be so – except for their own self imposed limitations.

I coach a lot of fine individuals – people in business who are working hard to be the best leader they can be, both for themselves and for those they lead. It’s an almost unalloyed pleasure, marred only by the frustration caused by watching those few who self-destruct every time they near success.

There are a lot of hyphenated leaders. Wanna-be leaders, Always-on leaders, Glory-Grabbing leaders – but there’s no-one so heartbreaking to work with as a Never-Gonna-Get-There leader: someone who rises again and again to the very edge of success, only, as in some twisted version of chutes and ladders, to fall back solely as a result of their own subconscious, success-restricting traits.

Here are the three main categories of Never-Gonna-Get-There leader, and, if you recognize yourself or a colleague amongst them, how to avoid Moses fate:

1. The Epiphany Junkie

The trendy new book absolutely everybody must read. The new ‘social’ tool we gotta dominate. The perfect sales page layout that will send hidden ‘buy’ messages on our web site…

That’s the Epiphany Junkie, dropping the latest in their rapidly accumulating grab bag of realizations / discoveries / imperatives.

Problem is, while they think they’re confirming the fact of their genius, and leading their team to even greater heights of brilliance, the team is in reality simply being distracted from getting on with what’s really important.

If you think you might be an Epiphany Junkie, write down the last six epiphanies you dropped on your team. I have a two-fold challenge for you: (a) Were you actually able to recall the last six pearls of ‘must-do’ wisdom you laid on your unsuspecting colleagues; and (b) What real, lasting impact did they each have, apart from unnecessarily distracting everyone for a few days?

The answer? When you come back from that conference, or read that book, or stumble on a stunning meme in your tweetstream, keep it to yourself. Just shut the blank up about it for at least two weeks. If it’s truly important, you’ll see ways to integrate it quietly and seamlessly into what your team is doing.

If it isn’t important, you’ll have found something new to fixate on soon enough.

2.The Strategy Yanker

We’re going to grow by 50% over the next two years.” A month later: “Growth can’t be our main objective. We’re going to focus on customer service.” Six weeks later: “Profitability is all. We’re going to deliver a 25% increase on the bottom line.

That’s the Strategy Yanker, pulling their organization from pillar to post in a self-imposed search for the perfect plan for success, straining everyone’s patience, draining everyone’s motivation, and rapidly losing credulity with everyone forced to listen to the next whiplash change of direction.

The fundamental problem with the Strategy Yanker is that they’re usually intelligent people – so all of the proposed (and subsequently ditched) strategies are valid -if only they would choose one and stick with it.

Working with a Strategy Yanker is like getting into a car with a driver who knows ten different routes to the place you want to go – and can’t make their mind up as to which to take. You end up hopping from one route to another, then changing to another, never getting any closer to where you want to go.

The answer? A dose of the bleeding obvious. Pick a medium term strategy and stick to it. If you can’t, get out of leadership before you seriously hurt some people.

3. The Hero to Zero Myopic

Leadership isn’t a solitary occupation – by definition, a leader leads others.

Those ‘others’ are exactly like you and me – varied, competent in some areas, not so hot in others, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, all of us trying to travel north in a southbound lane.

Some Never-Gonna-Get-There leaders refuse to see people as they really are. Instead, they view everyone as either spectacularly great (‘She’s the best salesperson I’ve ever seen‘) or woefully dreadful (‘I can’t bear having him around me. Get him out of my sight.‘) – often changing their opinion of a person from one extreme to the other literally overnight.

Sound like you? Then you need to take responsibility for the hiring function. You need to put yourself in a position where having a ‘zero’ on the team is clearly, transparently no-one else’s fault but yours. Because chances are, it already is.