Do our best performers make lousy leaders?

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Written by Rita Trehan on 10 June 2022 in Opinion
Opinion

Using Alexander the Great's Hyphasis Mutiny as a case study, Rita Trehan argues that a lack of soft skills in top talent should send warning signals to organisations

In the history of leadership, it would be remiss to ignore Alexander the Great. Having conquered the Persian Empire, he and his army had arrived at the edge of the known world, India. In other words, he was a pretty effective leader. If the ancients had used key performance indicators, Alexander’s would have been impressive to say the least. He got results.

So too – though with rather less conflict – do the CEOs and executives of today, which is why they might find it instructive to consider the cause of Alexander’s undoing. For while he was proficient in the hard skills of performance, he lacked those softer skills without which sustainable leadership is impossible. His self-belief could carry his army only so far. But when it came to empathy, or adaptability, his army was less convinced. After ignoring his pleas to go on, they turned round and marched home in what became known as the Hyphasis Mutiny.

This illustrates, albeit dramatically, the age-old rule that top performers don’t always make the best leaders. There are many ways in which this rule plays out in the modern workplace.

The narcissist lacks empathy; the micromanager, trust – both of which are needed for reliably effective leadership

Take narcissism for example. A narcissistic CEO has a grandiose view of their abilities and a craving for flattery. And, unfortunately for their subordinates, they will in fact benefit the company in some ways. According to research from Penn State University, out of 111 CEOs in the computer industry, the most narcissistic made the most and the largest acquisitions. But high performance in this one metric could mean a terrible performance in others. The same Penn State research found that large and frequent acquisitions led to ‘extreme and fluctuating organisational performance’ as companies veer from win to loss. 

A vainglorious manager becomes the dreaded micromanager. A study by Accountemps showed that 59% of people have at some point been micromanaged, of whom 68% said it damaged their morale. What’s more, the micromanaged – now anxious of taking risks – may even become micromanagers themselves.

Of course, a micromanager isn’t always a narcissist, and vice versa. But what they have in common is a general disregard for the thoughts, feelings and contributions of their employees. The narcissist lacks empathy; the micromanager, trust – both of which are needed for reliably effective leadership. It’s hard to imagine a high-performing narcissistic CEO submitting, for example, to reverse mentoring: a growing workplace trend. The catch is that it can be hard to spot the difference between confidence and hubris. By then the damage is done.

The reason high performers don’t always make good leaders boils down to this: work isn’t solo. In any number of industries – HR especially, given its purpose – the aim isn’t to press on alone but to carry your team with you. Individual success won’t always translate to collective success. Top performers are promoted because of their herculean capacity for work, not leadership.

In this sense the job of a true leader is quite simple. They must set goals and give to their team the means of fulfilling them. But high performers, whether from hubris or the exhaustion of their own mountainous workload, don’t like to hear this, or else can’t hear it, as their left-behind team searches in vain for guidance.

On the other hand, it’s clear that high levels of performance, provided they can be allied with the soft skills of empathy, collaboration and constructive feedback, are desirable. What’s needed, therefore, is a multi-pronged approach in the way companies measure success. Results are important, but so too is the ability to mentor and motivate. What might this approach look like?

Focus on the right results

High profit margins and new clients are important but count for little if a toxic company culture is driving a high employee turnover. This will only be exacerbated if new starters in particular, deserving of help, are left in the lurch by their high-flying superiors. Moreover, unhappy teams dry up the pool of potential internal promotions, which means hiring external candidates already less invested in the company’s future.

Measure other people’s success, not just your own

No one is infallible; employees have no certain way of knowing if they’re valued or doing a good or a bad job. So tell them. Research by PwC has shown that 60% of employees want feedback on a daily or weekly basis, but only 30% are actually getting it. Whether it’s daily or yearly, a good leader should attend to the growth of their employees with tailored advice. This has never been more crucial. Fully 80% of ‘Gen Y’ employees want on-the-spot reviews instead of the formal yearly ones, according to LinkedIn. If the next generation, ‘Z’, are anything like them, then leaders should listen up – with both ears.

Set clear expectations

It’s been said that an effective communicator aims not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand. Leaders take note. In the early stages of hiring, vague expectations can sour things later on when through no fault of their own an employee misconstrues the nature of their role. Seasoned employees also need clear expectations as their duties grow. This is all especially important when one considers that a CEO’s workload, in size and scope, is likely to dwarf other people’s. A good leader should keep in mind that not everyone can multitask, skip meals, drink oceans of coffee, and rise at 5am.

And…breathe

What goes up must come down. The same goes for work. 36% of workers claim that their organisations have nothing in place to mitigate burnout – a problem moreover that disproportionately affects women, raising questions of gender parity. And the most common cause of burnout, at 75%? Unsupportive managers. Simply put, top performing leaders should concede that lunch and tea breaks, the occasional walk, team socials, and flexible working not only foster a healthy work-life balance but actually increase productivity.

There’s nothing wrong with being a top performer. The workplace needs them. In positions of leadership, however, they could do worse than stick to this multi-pronged approach – lest they succumb to their own Hyphasis Mutiny.

Rita Trehan, founder of Dare Worldwide 

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