Don’t Mess Up

There are 10 things that smart leaders do to help them cope — but those very actions could mess up their companies, careers, and lives.

“Everybody here has the ability to do anything I do and much beyond. Some of you will and some of you won’t. For those who won’t, it will be because you get in your own way, not because the world doesn’t allow you.”

– Warren Buffett speaking the University of Washington


Why is it that management and leadership and strategy books keep being published when merely adhering to most of them for an adequate amount of time would yield sustained positive results? Why is it that management and leadership theorists and experts keep reinventing the wheel instead of imploring us to just keep our nose to the grindstone until results happen? Why is it that positive thinking (and planning) is no match for negative behavior?

Quite simply, our animal brain has been around for hundreds of millions of years; our fully functioning hominid brain for tens of thousands of years. When we run into adversity, our animal brains push us to react by “fight or flight.” This reflex is deeply embedded in our DNA, because it goes back to the beginning of evolution. Compare that to our human brains which wage an uphill fight to have us pause, think, consider, weigh consequences, choose the best course of action and respond. I’ll wager that only a very small percentage of our chromosomes is dedicated to what makes us human (that is able to reflect before we react) compared to what makes us an animal (that reacts by reflex).

Add to that the fact that most reactive, fight or flight behavior which often leads to negative results is not negative in the short term. Negative behavior starts out as a way to cope with distress and in the very short term, relieves it. Fighting and fleeing are defensive or protective actions that seem preferable to doing nothing and being obliterated (with all due respect to the non-violent approach of Gandhi et al., which didn’t end too well for him personally). Despite it being a career-ending move, getting angry, exploding to the point of violence at a superior or these days at a subordinate, releases much stress and relieves much tension.

Slightly less immediately destructive are the verbal defensive/protective reactions of whining, blaming, making excuses or feeling sorry for oneself (in hopes that aggressors will take pity and remit). These may not end one’s career, but they certainly will affect one’s promotions, pay raises, and the number of people who will want to socialize with you at company picnics.

Recently there has been a decided shift to focusing on solutions rather than staying embedded and stuck in problems. As much as that appeals to me philosophically and seems reasonable, it is just not realistic. Until self-defeating behaviors that help you cope for the moment at the expense of your future are identified and (their presence and the consequences of ignoring them) accepted as opposed to minimized — or worse denied — the chances for forward progress as a company (where such behaviors are rampant) or individual will be small.

An analogy can be made to the most effective treatment for alcoholism — Alcoholics Anonymous. Until an alcoholic recognizes and accepts that drinking is a problem and one that he is powerless over, there is often very little positive movement in his life.


The reason most alcoholics cannot or will not admit they are alcoholics, is not so much denial, but a belief that they cannot live without drinking. And the reason they feel that way is that drinking has become a hard wired means to cope with the stress and distress that people believe they cannot.

As long as people avoid dealing head on with distress relief, and instead prevent behaviors by using intellectually, psychologically, conceptually, insightfully, philosophically vigorous, but in the end ineffective approaches; most plans to better oneself and one’s company will be short lived.

These behaviors are not difficult to identify. They are often hidden in plain sight and only require one person who is willing to pronounce that the Emperor has no clothes and is dressed instead in self-defeating behavior. Of course such “whistle blowing” can get the messenger shot, end his career, or end up being detrimental to their future.

Here are 10 things that smart leaders that help them cope, but that mess up their companies, careers and lives (hmm.. maybe they’re not so smart):

  1. Avoid confrontation – sometimes the tougher and stronger leaders are, the more afraid they are of confrontation. Superficially it’s because they don’t want to upset other people; but underneath is a fear that the upset person will react or retaliate in some unforeseen way that will trigger a counter-reaction by the leader that will cause him to feel and go out of control.
  2. Hire advisors, but don’t listen to them – many leaders know they need the input of outside advisors to see directions, strategies, etc. that they are too close to see for themselves. What they tend to minimize however is their ability to then make a change externally when they are so internally committed on many levels to the prior way of acting.
  3. Don’t accept when they’re wrong – one of the reasons leaders have trouble admitting they’re wrong is a fear that it will mushroom and reveal that they might be wrong in many additional areas. This is analogous to the fear of going to the doctor and finding out that there are just too many things wrong that have to be addressed.
  4. Avoid dealing with reality – this overlaps with number 3 above where acknowledging and accepting reality will reveal too many things that need to be addressed which leaders fear will overwhelm and incapacitate them.
  5. Wait too long or not long enough to cut their losses – leaders who have put much time, money and effort into a losing venture have trouble accepting that they’re not going to get anything back for everything they put out. Similar to the example of continuing to fix a lemon car hoping to recoup all the money you’ve put into it. On the other hand some leaders will jump from one flavor of the month to the next causing their people to stop executing when they figure the wind will change at any moment.
  6. Focus too much on strategy .vs execution – it’s very easy to be seduced by wonderful strategies that make so much sense and have so much promise that leaders don’t want to discover just how flawed they are. One of the ways to keep from realizing these flaws is to not execute on the strategy. This is the source of so much of the cynicism directed towards top consulting companies that offer incredible analyses of problems and theoretically sound solutions that just can’t be implemented.
  7. Trust analysis over instinct – just because something is logical does not mean it’s rational or realistic. Logic is often a process that dances to its own drum with one step following the previous one, even as the process veers away from reality.
  8. Trust instinct over analysis – one’s gut feelings are too often something that feel so intuitively correct that leaders will distort facts so as to verify what they want to believe. So much of supposedly scientific research looses its objectivity as even well intentioned researchers unconsciously become committed to certain conclusions and find ways to justify, rationalize, discount or negate results that are not in agreement with those desired results.
  9. Favoritism – making certain people feel more important than others can insidiously poison a culture and cause non-favored people to respond with non-productive behavior. It lessens people’s respect for the leader who appears to have been successfully brown nosed and manipulated by the people they have favored.
  10. Minimize the importance of what they don’t understand – the less important you can convince yourself something is, the less you have to address it. The problem is that many of those “unimportant” things turn out in the long run to be important, if not critical.