Why overcoming the 12 leadership derailers requires a focus on intention and not behavior.

First published by Modern Business magazine (Feb 2016)

Leadership derailers are part of every great leadership journey. Leaders must look beyond behaviours, and engage in development conversations targeting the intentions that drive the observable behaviours. With real-time coaching and performance feedback that acknowledges, elevates and leverages inside intentions, leaders can develop skills effectively, on the job.

It’s not just about strengths

Engagement specialists like Gallup, and positive psychologists like Martin Seligman have built a compelling case for focusing on strengths. Their research tells us that focusing on strengths improves engagement, satisfaction and performance in the workplace; it fuels people’s internal fires and significantly impacts organisational results. Yet in harsh reality, derailers get in the way. It’s like driving a high-performance vehicle with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake—until the brake is released, the car will never reach top speed.

It’s easier to ignore behaviours that threaten to derail leadership, in favour of a strengths focus. Developing leadership requires more than focusing on strengths; it requires leaders to overcome derailers by focusing on intention not just behaviour.

The dirty dozen leadership derailers

Leadership derailers are as unique and prolific as people’s personalities. In researching Developing Direct Reports: Taking the guesswork out of leading leaders, my co-authors and I drew on the latest in leadership theory and our professional experiences as executive coaches, to determine 12 globally recognised leadership derailers. 

1.     Staller – analysis paralysis

Taking too long to take action: perceived as blockers to progress; missing deadlines or opportunities.

2. Controller – command and control

Highly directive: sti ing initiative and innovation.

3. Cyclone – bull at a gate

In a hurry to achieve results: leaving a wake of destruction and disengagement.

4. Doer – can’t delegate

Hording work and responsibility to the detriment of themselves and their team.

5. Avoider – conflict averse

Reluctant to face tough conversations and situations: creating challenging team dynamics.

6. Fence-sitter – indecisive leader

Unclear leadership and direction: creating bottle necks in progress and frustration for others.

7. Know-it-all – closed to other ideas

Reluctant to consider new ideas or input from others.

8. Guardian – inability to innovate

Prefers the status quo: reluctant to change, low focus on innovation.

9. Micromanager – management on a leash

Excessive supervision: perceived as sti ing and untrusting. 

10. Poker face – showing no emotion

Non-expressive communication style: direct verbal communicator; frustrated by inference and reading between the lines.

11. People burner – poor people skills

Prioritisation of task accomplishment over people and relationships.

12. Tactician – poor strategic thinker

Reactive to daily pressures, buried in the day-to-day; unable to hold the broader, strategic view.

Poker face: A derailer in action

Sam wanted to understand why he was receiving feedback about his poor communication and relationship skills. He expressed his concern following feedback he received after an important meeting: ‘Stephanie thought

I wasn’t listening and wasn’t interested in what she was saying. But I was listening and I was interested. Knowing how the meeting went was important to me—there was a lot riding on it.’ 

During our coaching sessions, we discovered Sam listened with his ears not his eyes when Stephanie offered feedback on the meeting. His head was turned away from her; he didn’t show any facial expressions; he did not make eye contact. He listened, but Stephanie didn’t feel heard. Sam exhibited classic behaviours of the Poker-Face derailer. To others he appeared cold, uncaring and a poor communicator. This was not his intention; it was just his action (behaviour). His intention was to focus on the message and it’s impact on the work. 

We judge ourselves by our inside intentions; others judge us by our outside behaviours. Sam knew he was listening, but Stephanie didn’t ‘see’ him listening, ergo he ‘wasn’t listening’. When it comes to relationships in the workplace, perception is reality; therefore, Stephanie and the team felt the boss didn’t care.

During our coaching program, Sam worked hard to close the gap between his inside intention and outward behaviour by changing some of his actions. He made eye contact, smiled more, nodded as people spoke and held an open, approachable facial expression with lifted eyebrows, whenever possible. He didn’t listen any differently; he showed that he listened differently.

Separating behaviour from intention

People are not their behaviours but we treat them as such. When a driver ‘cuts us off’, we label them stupid, irresponsible, or a bad driver. (In Sam’s case: a poor listener.) Yet that one behaviour or situational response doesn’t de ne their entire character. It’s not necessarily an enduring personality trait; it’s just something they did.  

Our human tendency to judge someone’s character based on the situation or exhibited behaviour is the result of a cognitive bias called the Fundamental Attribution Error. We are quick to judge others from their outside behaviours yet when it comes to developing new skills, focusing on behaviours does not motivate people to change those behaviours, especially if they are not helpful ones. Working from their intention will produce better and more sustainable results. 

Think about the last time you cut off a driver. Perhaps you didn’t mean it? Your outward behaviour was not your inside intention. When they react by beeping their horn at you, it is unlikely to have a positive effect on your behaviour. Rather than apologise, the other driver is now treated to a return honk of the horn—hardly a productive exchange.  

Moving beyond behaviours

It takes a lot to look beneath the behaviour and focus on the intention. Lets face it, it’s much easier to respond to what’s in front of us and assume people’s behaviours de ne their character. It’s easier and less complicated. It’s also less effective in building relationships and overcoming leadership derailers.

To overcome leadership derailers (and help people take their foot off the brake), it’s critical to focus on the inside intention driving the outward behaviour.

  • People who feel seen and heard are more willing to make an effort.
  • People are less defensive when you validate their good intentions rather than focus on their negative behaviours.
  • People respond better to ‘redirecting their behaviours to better support their intentions’ than ‘changing their personalities’.
  • People are more engaged when they know they are on the right track, which leads to greater openness, creativity and insight.
  • People are open to change when the conversation acknowledges their effort.
  • People see themselves from the inside and sometimes can’t relate to perceptions from the outside.

Leaders need to polish the edges to get to the next level of leadership. Focusing on intention, not behaviour is the cornerstone of developing leadership, on the job— where real growth occurs.