The Subtle Trap of Self-Sabotage

Is it possible that you are sabotaging your own effectiveness as a leader without even knowing it? At SGR we teach that there are Four Dimensions to being a great leader, and they build on each other. You can see from the diagram that all leadership starts at the Relational level. Here, people follow you because of how you treat them, and this applies to both externally AND internally.


The second level is called Operational Leadership.  This is where people follow you because you know more about how things work than they do. Supervisors and Managers have to be Operational Leaders. However, many cities and organizations are institutionalizing mediocrity because they have supervisors who are technically competent, but relationally incompetent. Sometimes when I am teaching a class, I’ll make the observation that every organization has some managers who just “suck the life out of the room, and they are completely oblivious to it.” Almost every time I say that, a lot of people laugh, but some people cry.

The third level is what we call Systems Leadership. Here people follow you because they trust you to put systems in place that work—even though you, personally, don’t have direct control over the system. It’s all about trust.

The last level is Strategic Leadership, which is focused on not just what the organization is, but also on what it needs to become. But let’s go back to the Systems Level for just a moment. That’s where I observe a lot of accidental sabotage takes place. Here’s what I mean.

John Maxwell has made popular the statement that “Leadership is influence.” As a leader moves up in the organization, he/she may reach a ceiling in terms of formal leadership. The Public Works Department Head maintains the same title, even if he/she has been there for many years. Formal leadership doesn’t change, but informal leadership can continue to grow and grow and grow. That means that his or her influence grows and grows, too. However, it doesn’t always happen.  Just because you are in a position for a long time doesn’t mean your influence continues to grow. Sometimes it doesn’t grow because you sabotage yourself.

One of my mentors told me many years ago, “Your organization will not judge you by the way you treat the beautiful people. They will judge you based on the way you treat the weakest person in the community.” In many ways, he was right. However, I’ve developed a slight variation to his observation. I would say it this way: “The community at large will judge you based on the way you treat the weakest person, but your closest allies will judge you based on the way you treat them.”

Of course, I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t treat the weakest person with empathy, respect, kindness, and dignity. Certainly you should. However, if you treat that person properly, but behind closed doors, you treat your closest associates poorly—they will perceive your actions toward the needy as to be nothing more than self-serving, political grandstanding.

And that’s how leaders sabotage themselves. Because there comes a time when, in order for your influence (informal authority) to keep expanding, you need for those around you to naturally be saying about you to others, “You can trust him/her.”  But if they don’t experience it personally, you can’t pay them enough money to say it convincingly. So, instead of your informal influence growing and growing, it stops. It stagnates. It declines. Who caused that? Maybe you did.

SGR’s CEO, Ron Holifield, often says, “Always protect the relationship.” That’s sound advice. Don’t just do it for the ones “out there” when you’re in the political spotlight. Treat people the right way even when no one’s looking. Do it long enough and consistently enough and even if your title doesn’t change and your formal leadership doesn’t change, your informal influence will keep expanding, and that’s what really makes a leader because, as Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.”

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Chief Operations Officer, Strategic Government Resources

One response

  1. […] out on the most effective way to build employee engagement. It begins with you. Your dedication to relational leadership is where it all […]

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