From Task Master To Leader

Are leaders born or made? Dr. Rawle Philbert believes that a leader can be made. Appointed seven years ago as director of the department of dentistry at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, New York, Philbert, who was 35 then, had never managed a staff. His much-loved predecessor had been there for 18 years. Philbert described the environment–a staff of more than 30 doctors, residents, and administrative personnel–as “hostile.”

“It required me to send out memos and discipline folks when they didn’t follow the rules,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve been able to relax the rules. That’s because the staff trusts me now.”

In his role, Philbert has increased his patient base by 300% and has decreased the appointment waiting period from four months to one. For all his success, however, Philbert admits that it is still difficult for him to trust his staff enough to give them more responsibilities. As a result, Philbert often works 13-hour days and can be found immersed in paperwork on the weekends, handling even administrative tasks.

“This type of behavior can lead to burnout,” says David Dotlich, executive coach and author of Why CEOs Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb to the Top and How to Manage Them (Jossey-Bass; $22.95). What’s interesting is that experts agree that failure in leadership is never a result of executional errors, but symptoms of deeper problems such as:

Confusing Dictatorship for Leadership. Philbert admits to micromanaging. “I don’t breathe down anyone’s neck,” he offers apologetically. “I just want to be in control of the work environment.” Managers like Philbert tend to doubt the capabilities of their employees. Philbert feels that if he doesn’t control the work, important details may be lost or ignored. But in such an environment, employees feel less inclined to offer suggestions or to challenge ideas. They are also more inclined to always ask for permission, even for simple tasks. It creates an environment where workers are afraid to make mistakes or simply disinterested in the outcome. It’s easier to just do as told.

“Great leaders pay attention to detail, but they give people room to improve.” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End (Crown Business; $27.50). Clear and open lines of communication are important to energize this environment. While 82% of the senior managers polled in a survey on communication recognized its importance, three-fourths of their subordinates did not find them to be highly effective communicators. It’s also important to ask for feedback, surveying your managers and employees about the work environment. Offers Kanter: “A leader who shows interest in hearing other people’s views can begin to shift the cycle.”

Being Inflexible. If your reason for executing a task is, “It’s the way it’s always been done,” you’re already doomed to fail. Many companies often miss opportunities to change or adjust business practices because of corporate arrogance and complacency, confusing rigidity for values.