How you undermine your own leadership effectiveness

One of the reasons for ineffective leadership is that many leaders have a very different impact with their behavior than they think or intended. How do you change that so that you grow in leadership, with more effectiveness and better impact on people and performance?

It starts with realizing that your impact is not always what you think it is. Then make sure you do get a good view of your real impact. And if that’s not the impact you want, or that you’re supposed to have, change that.

The gap between intention and impact

Many leaders don’t realize that their impact is different than they think.

In all the 360o  assessments I have been allowed to do so far, there seem to be very few people who have a good idea of how they appear to others. Although we often think we know.

Some overestimate their competencies and impact on the world, others consistently underestimate their contributions and value, and often the effect of your behavior is simply different than intended..

For example, where you intend to delegate effectively, others see you shifting responsibilities. Where you mean to contribute to a solution, others see your behavior as meddling or as evidence of distrust. Where you think you’re just giving a compliment, someone’s going to spend the rest of the day walking on sunshine. 

One example that Marshall Goldsmith shares regularly is where you as a leader have to be very careful in giving suggestions. You think you’re just making a suggestion, but when it comes from you as a leader, your employees take it as an assignment. Especially if you are a leader of knowledge workers, specialists, professionals, who are more knowledgable in their field of expertise than you are, you risk that their knowledge will remain unused because they follow your suggestion.

For you, you are….just you. You as a human being. For your employees, however, you are primarily the leader. The one who decides a lot. Who affects their functioning and well-being in the workplace. The one they have certain (high!) expectations of. So, if you realize that now, what’s going to be different?

Understanding impact and behavior

The first step in changing your impact is to really get a good view of the impact you have, and of the behavior that causes it.

360o  assessments (always the first step in a Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching process), give a good picture. But beside those, it helps to ‘just’ engage in conversation with people. Ask questions. And then really listen seriously to the answers. Listen to how your behavior impacts people. And determine if that’s what you want it to do.

Self-reflection is indispensable in this. Take a good look at what you do (or don’t do) and what impact it has on people. Reflecting on your actions:

  1. What went well and what did I do to make it go well?
  2. What didn’t work out so well, and what did I do to cause that?
  3. What else could I have done so that things turn out differently?

Another reflection exercise for leaders and MT’s,is the grow-and-kill exercise. For example, if you see in your team that little responsibility is taken, then try to see how your actions contribute to this. Try to come up with at least 10 answers to each of these two questions:

  1. What do I do (observably) that helps people to take responsibility? (grow)
  2. What do I do (observably) that helps people to not take responsibility? (kill)

Leading for impact

If you know the impact of your behavior, you can focus on what you want to achieve.

By the way, don’t just look at what you need to improve or start doing. Also look at what you need to stop. Marshall Goldsmith likes to quote Peter Drucker on this:

“We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I’ve met don’t have to learn what to do. They have to learn what to stop.”

In his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There“, Marshall Goldsmith lists 20 bad habits of leaders (more on this in a later blog).

Most successful leaders can tick off some of those bad habits. Sometimes such a bad habit comes from good intention. Like my personal favorite: “Wanting to add too much value”, for example by contributing to every discussion, or making each proposal 2% better. Think about what this does to the person who comes up with the proposal… Is that worth the extra 2%?

As a leader, you are not paid to be guided by your emotions and bad habits. You are paid to have a positive impact on your employees, their results and the organization. What is the positive impact you want to have? That you should have?

To really have that impact, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What behavior should I stop with?
  2. What behavior should I start with?
  3. What behavior should I continue with?

And do that. With courage, humility and discipline.

On your way to more effective leadership

Imagine that you would always come across as you intended. What would that bring about in your effectiveness and that of your people? What would that mean for your performance?

Start with the first step today, you only need yourself for this: Look back on the past day/week/month. Where did you have the impact you wanted to have, and what did you do that caused that? Where did it work out completely differently, and what did you do that caused that? And what else could you have done?


This blog is one of a series of blogs in which I share my 10 key insights from the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching approach. Insights that can help you become a more effective leader.  Read all 10 insights here

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