Vulnerable leaders

It’s still unusual for successful business leaders to admit failure and reflect upon the learnings. Even rarer for them to share with peers and subordinates. Unfortunately, that holds back the next generation of Africa business leaders because they don’t learn much from tales of unbridled success.

So when you come across leaders who reflect on failure as well as success, you prize the time you spend with them.

Recently a very prominent local CEO addressed our programme for emerging leaders In common with all our speakers, his brief was to reflect upon his life and career, and share the moments that have mattered most. He chose to focus on a significant failure that changed his life and his company’s fortunes, and the way he did it was fascinating.

He began, as many immodest leaders might, by sharing a summary of his psychological profile. The output of an expensive exercise conducted by an HR consultancy, and one of many he had undergone in his long career. It was an impressive single page, made very colourful, with bar and pie charts and scales. And the summary was impressive. A committed action-oriented leader. Performance-focused yet encouraging of others. A great communicator. This profile was completed just before his failure.

Reflecting on this profile, and the failure it presaged, he realised that he was in fact two leaders in one. In the good times, when business was succeeding, he was a charismatic, coaching leader. Able to cut through detail and communicate a clear path forward. A sunshine boss. But in the bad times, when business seemed out of control, a darker side emerged. A win-at-all-costs, ruthless, non-consultative tyrant.

So, taking over a new leadership role in an unfamiliar sector, he soon encountered conditions that triggered the dark side. He cut costs, he retrenched, he dictated. And in eighteen months he ground to a halt. Little of what he was doing was helping, instead he was destroying the business.

Fortunately he turned to psychology for help, and was able to free himself from the negative and embrace the positive. Two years later, as an established collaborative leader, his business is more successful than ever it was.

At Amalgam we’re fortunate to attract good speakers. Women and men with decades of experience in local, regional and international business. They spontaneously endorse the central theme of our curriculum – that IQ is nothing without EQ. Their greatest contribution to the next generation is their willingness to show vulnerability; not to show off. It’s humbling to learn from them.