How to Learn From Unleaderlike Moments

Leadership development is a strategic priority for every organization looking to grow or change. But the course of continuous improvement does not always run smoothly.

Sometimes even the top people in an organization put a foot wrong. However, missteps don’t have to mean ruin if subsequent development interventions make it clear that vulnerability and mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth.

Teaching leadership means knowing how to distinguish leaderlike behaviors from unleaderlike behaviors. More important, leaders need to learn how to regulate their behaviors.

How Does an Unleaderlike Leader Act?

In October 2012, The Ken Blanchard Cos., the author’s firm, hosted a presentation titled “Unleaderlike Moments” that featured more than 50 working executives, leadership experts and executive coaches sharing examples of unleaderlike moments from their own careers that were embarrassing, angering or frustrating, yet became important learning moments in their leadership journeys.

Presenters included senior leaders for large corporations, owners and principals from smaller firms, and leaders of government and nonprofit agencies. Crowdsourced commentary came from a virtual audience of more than 2,000 participants from 128 countries who viewed the presentation simultaneously and interacted with each other through chat and Twitter.

As much as leadership teams and organizational cultures vary, and as much as different organizations may value certain attributes and behaviors over others, there are some universal definitions of behaviors that almost everyone can agree on as “leaderlike” versus “unleaderlike” — even across organizations and cultures. The participants’ stories define leaderlike behaviors as those that are caring, respectful, trustworthy, honest and truthful, consistent with shared values, inclusive and participatory, focused on others and for the greater good.

Universally recognized as the hallmarks of good leadership, these behaviors often define how others perceive the motives and intentions of the person enacting the behavior. It is through behavior that character is revealed.

Yet despite everyone’s best intentions, unleaderlike moments happen all the time in public life, in businesses and in personal relationships. As presenter after presenter shared memorable, sometimes vulnerable unleaderlike moments for others to learn from, a few themes began to emerge. Unleaderlike moments cause:

• Strong emotions, such as anger, embarrassment or drama at work.
• Uneven participation or withdrawal.
• Misunderstanding and confusion.
• Setbacks in progress toward a desired outcome.
• Mistrust in relationships.
• Damage to workplace culture.

The most common examples shared of unleaderlike behaviors included moments when emotional regulation failed, people assumed the worst in others or egos got the better of them. Sound human? It is.

“When you are a leader, you need to act like a leader, because people are watching you, whether they are your direct reports or not,” said Karl Bimshas, founder of Karl Bimshas Consulting. “Leadership is about leading, even when it’s not convenient or on your timetable.”

Thought leaders who participated in “Unleaderlike Moments” offered suggestions to promote good behaviors and minimize bad ones.

“You can’t be furious and curious at the same time,” said Sharon Jordan-Evans, president of the Jordan Evans Group, which offers executive coaching and leadership development. When emotions overwhelm, she said she advises her clients to stop, breathe and get curious.

“Your first reaction may not be your best reaction,” said Mike Freeman, division president of the Americas at WD-40 Co., a global consumer products company.

“Just being calm or quiet doesn’t mean you’re weak,” said leadership consultant Dan Rockwell. “You can actually be calm, and that invites people to participate.”

It also can help if leaders choose to assume the best in others, especially during times of conflict or misunderstanding.

Essentially, it’s about keeping the ego in check. “When I look back upon my career and the careers of my clients, I can trace every single instance of unleaderlike moments back to one root-level cause — ego,” said Mike Myatt, leadership adviser and CEO of N2growth, a global leadership development consultancy.

On the other hand, Myatt said when someone leads with humility, good things happen. When an individual inverts the process and leads with ego, pride, arrogance or selfishness, he or she is setting up an unleaderlike moment.

Learning From Mistakes
Depending on their severity, unleaderlike moments can define a career for better or worse. These moments can trigger primitive responses of “fight or flight,” and sometimes they reveal some basic human needs hidden within the polished professionals who others strive to emulate. Therein lies the vulnerability of these moments.

Many leaders are afraid to reveal vulnerability. Yet more than 20 presenters shared a vulnerable moment with more than 2,000 global presentation participants. What would prompt these individuals to share these vulnerable moments with others? They had grown from these moments. They were able to view their mistakes not as permanent setbacks, but as learning and career-building moments. They took ostensible failures and were transformed by the experience.

The outcome of showing vulnerability is usually stronger connection. In their 2009 research study “Recovering From Leadership Mistakes,” Mitchell Kusy and Louellen Essex show that “leaders who reveal certain shortcomings — their own human-ness, if you will — are more likely to be successful in the long run.”

The ability to learn from mistakes and be transformed by them is a core strength in great leaders and innovators. In the book “Brilliant Mistakes,” author and Wharton professor Paul J.H. Schoemaker shares examples of inventions that were judged to be mistakes by the conventional wisdom of their time, but which later proved to be game-changing. In a November 2011 Knowledge@Wharton interview, he defines a brilliant mistake as “an action you take or a prediction you make that turns out to be wrong. This hurts you initially, but then it also opens up new vistas, and it may result in innovation and discovery. You start to see the world or yourself differently.”

Unleaderlike moments can be brilliant mistakes that grow self-awareness, humility, maturity and courage, if the leaders can recover from them. Leadership researchers from the Hesselbein Leadership Institute found that recovery is a key leadership competency. In their study, Kusy and Essex state that “successful leaders actually use mistakes as key resume builders to improve their organizations as well as their careers.”

What Happens Next?
Unleaderlike moments can be important career builders. They are a form of resilience as well as emotional intelligence. Fully understanding what went wrong, and how not to let the same emotional triggers overtake one’s better judgment is a step in the necessary growing-up process for almost every leader.

Further, acknowledging unleaderlike moments may be a critical stepping stone toward becoming an effective leader. What’s at stake goes further than a single leader’s reputation. “Fish don’t know they’re wet. They don’t feel the water, they don’t see the water, they don’t hear the water,” said Jackie Freiberg, co-owner of and co-author of four books including “Nanovation: How a Little Car Can Teach the World to Think Big and Act Bold.”

“The water around them is white noise. What unleaderlike behaviors have become white noise in your organization?”

Unleaderlike moments also can compromise the forward progress of an entire organization by seeping into the ecosystem or the de facto culture. How the culture responds to these unleaderlike moments can be defining moments for the organization at large.

Most people do not come to work intending to have detrimental and unmotivating effects on others, and even the most respected leaders have their share of unleaderlike moments.

“When you learn how to serve and not be served, you are more likely to avoid unleaderlike moments,” said Ken Blanchard, chief spiritual officer for The Ken Blanchard Cos. “Lead with a servant heart, and you’ll find that others will want to follow.”

Wendy Wong is a senior vice president at The Ken Blanchard Cos. She can be reached at