How strong, powerful leaders actually undermine their own success | Xquadrant

How strong, powerful leaders actually undermine their own success

Strong, strategic leaders are an incredible asset - but they can easily and permanently undermine the long-term success of the team. Here’s how you can avoid this common but often unseen pitfall.

Superstar leader, strong team - but growing disengagement

I was working with the Senior Leadership Team of a UK company.

10 experienced people around the table, including a phenomenal, brilliant high-performer as their leader.

Two people were taking up 50% of the “airtime” and engaging in vigorous debate. Add another two people, and 80% of the airtime was accounted for.

That meant that six people’s contributions (60% of the team!) were squeezed into the remaining 20% of airtime.

A recipe for disengagement, silo-thinking and underperformance.

Now, we solved the issue but it’s important to understand what the dynamics were that created this problem in the first place. I’ll explain that in a second - but you need to understand the power of the Conqueror vantage point first.

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The power - and destructive force - of the Conqueror perspective

Through our coaching and consulting work with leaders and teams, we’ve observed that we all see the world through five “lenses”. These are filters that govern how we see the world, and how we lead as a result. We tend to use one primary lens (our default way of seeing the world), but can deploy all of the lenses to a greater or lesser degree depending on the situation.

Working with teams at all levels, we’ve seen that the Conqueror lens is both incredibly powerful and dangerously destructive. Powerful because it relentlessly focuses on achieving ambitious goals; destructive because its laser focus can easily cause collateral damage in the team and shut down the contributions of others.

Here’s a quick pen-sketch of the Conqueror. Take a minute to see whether this is your primary lens, a lens that you value and can use when necessary, or a lens that is rather uncomfortable for you and used only occasionally.

Leadership Lens:

The Conqueror

The Conqueror lens is the perspective of STRATEGY and WINNING. The Conqueror lens encourages us to ask:

  • ​​​How do we win?
  • Who says we can’t?

Sweet Spots: Strategic Problem-solving

  • The Conqueror lens relentlessly focuses on how to break new ground, achieve goals, and… win! It brings a military-style strategic focus, solving systematic problems and aligning people and resources to achieve big results.
  • Resilient and relentless, the Conquerer lens values success and victory to a greater extent than every other Lens. Long after other people may have given up, the Conqueror will continue to pursue the vision.
  • The Conqueror is highly strategic and a born prioritiser, clearly identifying the most valuable tactics and people that will lead to goal achievement.
  • The Conqueror often plays the long-game, laying foundations even at an early stage that will enable his or her project to scale. Galactic domination - not incremental success - is always the goal!
  • They can clearly communicate their rational logical thinking in a powerful way, which makes them engaging speakers.

Blind Spots: Force of Personality

  • Conquerors can be seen as arrogant and self-serving when immature, and many of them have elbowed their way up the ladder in the early parts of their career.
  • Their strategic focus on victory can lead them to quickly dismiss others they perceive as incompetent or uncommitted, therefore “de-activating” large parts of the organisation unintentionally.
  • Whilst the Conqueror is an incredible asset for any team, their sheer force of personality is hard for many other types to disagree with or challenge. The danger with the Conqueror is the other lenses are ignored, especially the perspectives of relationships (Mediator) as well as ideas that don’t serve the immediate tactical goal (Explorer).

Summary

The Conqueror lens is the primary perspective of under 10% of the population. Their clear thinking and incredibly powerful communication style means that their perspective is likely to dominate discussions - as well as shut down the less forceful personalities at the table. The 20% of the people doing 80% of the debating are probably Conquerors!

  • ACTIVATE THEM BY: Conquerors are self-activating! Simply respect them and stand clear!
  • BEWARE OF: “Friendly fire”. When a Conqueror sniffs incompetence or a lack of commitment - or even just a different viewpoint from their own that may slow things down - the sheer power of Conqueror communication can damage or shut down others in the team, ultimately reducing the engagement and psychological safety of the entire group.

How Conquerors unintentionally dampen team performance

Whereas other types need to be drawn out in a team discussion, Conquerors need no such support. They tend to speak first and have strong views on what needs to be done to succeed.

Their strengths are clear: they’re competent, ambitious and strategic. They drive teams to be bold and tenacious. What they often overlook is how their very strengths create risks for the team as a whole.

I. They tend to dominate discussion

Out of the 4 people taking 80% of the airtime in the UK company I mentioned above, three were Conquerors!

We see this played out repeatedly: when a Conqueror takes a position, their force of personality is so strong that often only other Conquerors feel excited about the chance of a vigorous debate! Perhaps you’ll hear the Operator making a stand, but most other types decide that this a battle they’d rather not fight.

This creates a real sense of disengagement in teams, who don’t feel listened to or their perspective valued.

II. They tend to engage in friendly fire

The Conqueror’s ability to blast their way through road-blocks is a real asset. However, most teams know the occasions where a team member got incinerated by a Conqueror for taking a different perspective, raising a doubt, or disagreeing with the plan.

We saw this with my client. The team appreciated their Conqueror leader, but found him unpredictable, never knowing what would trigger a volcanic eruption. They could all remember occasions when a colleague had been blasted in front of an entire group, and didn’t want to be the next in line.

No wonder the leader complained of a lack of engagement and “vigorous debate”! The team had retreated to their technical specialisations, where they could feel they were on safe ground.

Activate a Conqueror? No need!

Who’s the person in the team with a strategic approach to everything, intensely focused on achievement, and with a real force of personality? Chances are, you’ve found a Conqueror.

Conquerors are often found at the top of organisations, or they’re rising up through the ranks fast. They don’t wait to be asked to participate: they have a clear view of what the team needs to do to succeed, and a high bar on the commitment level expected of each person.

They don’t need to be ‘activated’, as they are ambitious, resilient and self-motivated. Simply affirm their skill and commitment and get out of the way!

However, they DO need to create an environment where the other Lenses can bring their perspective and contribution.

A simple way to work with a Conqueror is to ask them to wait until everyone has spoken before making their contribution. The Conqueror will find that tough, as they’re typically used to speaking first … and often having the last word too! But when the Conqueror truly understands the insights afforded by others’ vantage points, they can incorporate those ideas and formulate a better strategy than would otherwise have been the case.

ACTION POINT: What’s the specific action you can take to help get the best from a Conqueror in your world today?

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Richard Medcalf
 

Richard Medcalf is Founder & CEO of Xquadrant. Having held senior positions in both the professional services and tech sectors, he's committed himself to improving the quality of leadership and organisational performance around the world. The way to his heart is through curry.

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