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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

'The vices I admire'

Barack Obama still sneaks cigarettes. Gordon Brown has a mean temper. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin struggles with her weight. At what point do a leader's personal vices begin to undermine effectiveness? Is it better to hide them or acknowledge them?

Personal vices are personal until they interfere with your ability to do your job.

President Obama's penchant for sneaking cigarettes is harmful to his health. But if he smokes outside away from others, he puts his health at risk and no one else's. Occasional cigarette smoking is not considered a vice that will diminish a leader's ability to execute the duties of his office.

Gordon Brown's penchant for bullying is more problematic. Bullies inflict harm on others, typically on those with whom they work the closest. Such behavior does affect a leader's ability to do the job because if his subordinates are afraid of the boss's temper they will "temper" their own behaviors. They will seek to please rather than advise, if advising means sharing bad news or offering disagreement. Withholding of honest advice can be fatal to a leader's ability to do his job well because he is cutting himself off from people who can bring him alternative perspectives. Management in a bubble is unreal and unsustainable.

Leaders need all the support they can muster, particularly in tough times. Their behavior matters. A personal vice can hinder their ability to attract good people. A common problem that executive coaches see is the brilliant executive who makes the numbers but whose personal behavior -- typically bullying -- is so offensive that no one can stand working with him and so the supposedly brilliant executive finds himself unable to attract talented colleagues to work with him. He also hurts, and deservedly so, his ability to climb the ladder.

Let's be clear about bullying; it is not the occasional raised voice or temper tantrum. Bullying is the intentional denigration of another person over whom you have authority. Bullies do not simply critique performance; they criticize individuals personally. Nothing is good enough, and that extends to the employees.

The dirty secret about vices, in particular bullying, is that such vices are ignored by those in more senior positions for one key reason: the manager who exhibits them is "making the numbers," that is, getting work done on time and on budget. What those in senior positions responsible for bully bosses do not take into account is the harm that such bullies exact on the organization in terms of stress-induced illnesses and absenteeism. Bullies also drive good people out of the company. Talented individuals quit because they cannot stand working for a bully.

Truth be told we all have our little vices, perhaps a penchant for snacking during a meeting, or staring out the window while others are talking to you. Maybe even an annoying habit of tapping your fingers on a desk during a meeting, or bragging too much about your kid's prowess in sports. Annoying yes, but not fatal.

Let's also put vice into perspective. Quirks can be colorful. Excessive virtue, that is, when portrayed as "holier than you" attitudes is also harmful to a leader's ability to connect with others. As Winston Churchill, himself no stranger to brandy and cigars, once quipped about someone he knew: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."

One technique for addressing one's foibles, as well as to improve your ability to lead, is to find yourself a peer coach. This is a colleague whom you trust and who has your best interests at heart. You can discuss your desire to improve a behavior, e.g. become a better communicator, or to stop annoying habits. Ask the colleague to observe you. Have a conversation about what your peer coach observes. You continue the process until improvement occurs. In turn, you may offer to coach this colleague. Trust is the operative principle. You each want the other to succeed.

Vices can be personal if we keep them to ourselves, but when they are allowed to interfere with performance, yours and your colleagues, it's not longer personal. It's a failure to manage yourself and to lead others effectively.

By John Baldoni

 |  March 2, 2010; 5:07 AM ET
Category:  Leadership weaknesses Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I'll add that Self-Awareness is one of the most important traits that a leader should have. Self-aware people - leaders especially - realize that everything that they say and do has an impact on others. Those who are self-aware are much more likely to be able to keep vices in check and even overcome them because they are quicker to see that they can become detrimental to interpersonal relationships or harm oneself. These folks are also most able to strike a balance between the good that comes from a strong tendency (e.g., being demanding while driving a team to meet its goals) and the bad to where that drive becomes bullying.

Posted by: jpostonday | March 2, 2010 10:08 PM
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