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  • Frank Fortner

Avoiding The Traps of Carnival Leadership

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I'm willing to bet that most of us can remember being a child where the thought of going to a carnival or an amusement park was just about the best thing imaginable, outside of birthdays and holidays. The sounds, lights, rides, and games all mixed with the sweet smell of caramel apples and cotton candy - this is a paradise made for kids! As adults, however, we're smart enough to know these venues are set up like traps that use our offspring to separate us from our hard-earned money, somewhat like the checkout (candy) aisle at a grocery store. Of course, we still go just to see the joy on our children's faces. And also, because we were kids once too! 

If you are a leader in business or elsewhere, there are plenty of traps that most of us, if not careful, can fall into from time to time. Therefore, using some of the more well-known attractions found at a carnival, I've highlighted six specific leadership types along with ways to avoid falling into the traps that can lead to being seen as these kinds of leaders. Let's get started with the first...

The Ferris Wheel Leader

You already know this leader. They love the corner office, the reserved parking space, the expensive suits, the swanky dinners, everything that screams "executive." Simply put, they love the view from the top. The problem is they rarely come down to ground level and engage with what's truly happening on the shop floor. They may well be the smartest person in the boardroom, but this "ivory tower" mentality damages their ability to engage with their team, which can result in a lack of respect, trust, and confidence in their leadership. One sign that you may be falling into this trap is when people start saying, "We never hear from leadership." To avoid this, communicate. Better yet, overcommunicate. Be authentic. When possible, come down from the top of the Ferris wheel and walk the shop floor. Understand what life is like at the level where the work of the business gets done. Ask questions. Get to know your team and their stories, and let them get to know you.

The Fun House Leader

This age-old attraction comes complete with a maze of reality-bending mirrors and secret passageways, illusions, and deceptive designs intended to trick your mind. In like fashion, this type of leader is a spin master who cleverly bends the truth to suit their agenda. For example, they may contend that "everything is running great operationally and customers love us," or, "we're the only ones who can do the type and quality of work we do," whereas the real numbers, the customers, and the competition might say otherwise. This facade is an easy trap to fall into because all leaders want to keep company spirits high, and nobody wants to deliver bad news, but the danger here is losing trust with your team. To avoid becoming this leader, build trust through authenticity and transparency. Make sure your team knows the real score. If you're winning, celebrate the job they've done! If you're not, let them be part of the solution.

The House of Horrors Leader

This leader is prone to using fear as a management tool to promote their agenda. For example, this might manifest itself in the constant threat of negative consequences tied to a certain lack of performance. Team culture is defined by what is actually true for an organization, so, unfortunately, fear can become the culture. If that happens, your team's performance will suffer because a fear-based environment isn't a safe, healthy environment. If you disagree, take it up with Maslow and Herzberg. After all, if employees are constantly worried about their jobs, they can't possibly be as focused on succeeding in those jobs. To avoid this trap, leaders need to promote a culture of respect from the top down. Include this expectation in your core values, consistently living it and reinforcing it.

The Roller Coaster Leader

Similar to one of the most popular rides at an amusement park, this leader is wildly unpredictable, prone to almost daily ups and downs, twists, and turns. They might make a decision one day, reverse it the next, and maybe in a few weeks reinstate the decision. They are difficult to follow because those in their charge will eventually lose confidence in the direction they are moving in (at that moment). Of course great leaders will occasionally admit to being wrong or to reverse a decision, but this is something more extreme due to its frequency. Often, the problem is this leader flies by the seat of their pants, so even they don't know where they are headed. This makes steering the ship a fluid exercise of being blown about by the winds of the day. If you find yourself in this category from time-to-time, or you know someone who is, it may be time to get offsite with your team and revisit your strategy and goals. Create a strategic plan and communicate it with clarity. Finally, align your decisions with the plan, which will help you stay on a much more predictable path.

The Tilt-A-Whirl Leader

More than most, the tilt-a-whirl ride would usually turn my stomach. All that centrifugal force resulting in spinning, turning, and twisting only to find you haven't really gone anywhere when the ride is over. Some leaders generate lots of activity but make few decisions. Worse, they deliver very few results. Sure, they enjoy the executive exercise of strategizing, especially in a fun, offsite location, but not so much the daily discipline of execution. They are prone to analysis paralysis. This is yet another one of the easier traps to fall into. If you find you are given to this behavior occasionally, you can avoid it by surrounding yourself with people who are stronger than you in specific areas, for example, in day-to-day operations. Seek out passionate and decisive folks you trust who will help you drive toward decisions and follow through on the execution. Another idea is to create personal deadlines whereby decisions must be made to end things like analysis paralysis.

The Whack-A-Mole Leader

This leader can be incredibly frustrating to work for because of their lack of planning, structure, discipline, and predictability. For example, they might pop their head up one day, and out-of-the-blue ask you about a specific project you're working on, then disappear for weeks only to pop up again asking about something else. Like the game, their leadership style may seem completely random. If this is how you lead, please stop. You're likely driving your direct reports crazy. Instead, engage your team in a more deliberate and consistent manner. Perhaps you need to create a little more structure by setting up specific team or one-on-one calls every week at the same time. Try to be more predictable in the format of those meetings, so they know ahead of time what you're likely to discuss with them. I promise you will appear much more thoughtful, strategic, and competent. Your team will feel safer around you and put more trust in your leadership.

So there they are, and likely you can come up with a few others. Far from pointing the finger, in full disclosure, I've had times in my career when I've personified some of these. Most of us aren't born great leaders, but it's a journey of improvement over time. My hope was only to bring awareness by giving these specific names you might remember on your own leadership journey and, hopefully, either steer clear of them or get out the trap if you find yourself currently there. Let's build stronger organizations!

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