During the past several months, I have heard a common, and concerning, comment from many business leaders. In short, their companies are thriving, and they are taking 100 percent of the credit, disregarding the positive impact of outside factors and influences.
And there have been outside factors — big ones. For example, to mitigate the pandemic’s impact, both the Trump and Biden administrations, with help from the Federal Reserve, expanded the money supply well more than what was needed. Both administrations juiced the economy through extreme deficit spending, and it created unprecedented demand.
Additionally, the outdoor recreation industry benefited from people looking for safe ways to spend time with their friends and family. That trend, plus the economic policies, helped businesses not only in the boating industry, but in many other industries, as well.
A market tailwind, no matter what causes it, provides an opportunity to claim some credit. I have heard multiple leaders say something along the lines of, “Yes, there is strong overall demand, but our success is really a result of our good …” Fill in the blank with product, sales team, marketing, research, culture, innovation or dozens of other reasons that direct credit back to the leader.
Know that 2021 has been an extremely difficult year in which to be a leader. Covid-19 and supply-chain challenges have made leading tough, and leaders who have succeeded deserve credit. I have spoken to many leaders of companies who, despite strong demand, are actually having a bad 2021 because they could not manage through such a volatile environment. Organizations that are having good years should celebrate.
However, those who are enjoying success need to be careful not take too much credit. Self-deception is incredibly destructive and neutralizes careers and organizations. (Read more about this in my column “Truth or Consequences?” in the November 2020 issue.)
The challenge for leaders is that we are naturally wired to take credit when things go well and to deflect blame when things go bad, regardless of the actual reasons. For instance, not one leader who is crowing today about an organization’s success was accepting blame for the economic troubles of 2008 and 2009. Of course, they saw that differently.
For those having a great year, and maybe even experiencing unprecedented success, I don’t want to dampen your excitement. As I noted earlier, we should celebrate when things go well. However, have a realistic view of what is happening at your business. To think good results are because of you and bad results are due to circumstances beyond your control is a dangerous mindset.
A couple of books are relevant to understanding this concept. In The Motive, author Patrick Lencioni explains the difference between a reward-driven leader and a responsibility-driven leader. The reward-driven leader is always looking for a way to position himself as the smart leader, even when he has little to do with success. He is trying to drive personal rewards, either extrinsic or intrinsic. This works for a while, and sometimes even for an entire career. However, more times than not, a reward-driven mindset actually results in lower rewards because it fails to optimize team performance.
On the other hand, responsibility-driven leaders want to have an impact, and the rewards come to them because of the impact they are having. This perspective can seem counterintuitive, but I have consistently seen things play out exactly in this way. Responsibility-driven leaders seek truth, and focus on impact and outcome. That mindset drives better results, which increase rewards.
In Tribal Leadership, the authors write about five types of teams. They say about 50 percent of teams demonstrate “lone warrior” behavior, which means everyone is trying to make themselves look good. The people work together as a team, but for individual achievement, acclaim and reward.
This approach can result in making individuals look good at the expense of truth. It may work in bursts, but in the long run it results in significantly poorer results.
If you have read any of my books or articles, you know how much my team focuses on being “learners.” There is tremendous power in being a learner, but it requires seeking truth.
The current season we are enjoying is going to end; that is a certainty. If we are self-deceived, we will have problems down the road. Leaders, save yourselves that grief by drawing a realistic view of business in good and bad times.
Naturally, it feels good to give ourselves credit, even when it is not actually due, and it definitely feels good to believe we are right. But the best practice for a leader to pursue — for his organization, his team and himself — is to seek truth.
Bill Yeargin is CEO of Correct Craft and author of Education of a CEO.
This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue.