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Gut Check: What Price Are You Paying By Tolerating Mediocrity?


“Stop tolerating mediocrity in yourself and in the leaders of your company!”

These were my final words after a presentation at an HR conference. Normally, I expect a certain degree of polite if not enthusiastic applause. This time, the room went quiet.

At first, I wasn’t sure if the delegates disagreed with my point of view. Or possibly they were taking some time to let the comments sink in. What was clear, however, was that people were uncomfortable.

That was hardly surprising in and of itself. During the session, I had presented some of the findings from our research on leadership accountability.  In particular, that good leadership is an essential commodity for any successful organization. And that despite acknowledging this, far too many organizations have mediocre leadership, at best.

I didn’t have to wait long after my session to get an accurate temperature from the room. Out of the stunned silence in the room, a long line up of delegates came forward to speak with me. Many said that my message was spot on and that we need to really start tackling this issue of mediocre leadership in our organizations. It was if they had been thinking the same thing as I was, but they were afraid to say something.

It’s been surprising to me how often this is happening at conferences and within organizations when I’m speaking to leaders. It seems we are dealing with an epidemic of mediocre leadership and everyone is afraid to talk about this in the open.

However, giving in to our fear about bringing this out of the shadows and into the light is bad for us as individuals, and our organizations. The silence actually enables mediocre leaders to continue in their mediocre ways.

Why do we tolerate and even enable mediocrity in our leaders?

In some cases, we put up with mediocre leaders because we naively believe with more time and support, they’ll come around and improve their performance. Let’s be honest, how many times does that really happen? Really mediocre leaders tend to be immune to counselling and support. In those cases, our organizations really need to act and remove those people from positions of authority. Instead, we continue to hope against hope things will improve on its own.

In other cases, we fail to address mediocrity because we feel that it is actually better than having a vacancy. Think about that for a moment. We’d rather have a bad leader than have to deal with the complications of finding a better leader.

In both scenarios above, we are settling. We seem to be losing sight of the fact there is a price to pay when we allow mediocre leaders to stay in their roles. The hard costs are obvious in terms of company performance. Yet, I find the soft costs can be even more worrisome.

If left to its own devices, mediocrity can infect your organization’s culture, like a virus. And just like a virus, once it’s deeply embedded, it’s hard to get rid of.

When leaders settle for mediocre, everyone knows it. When leaders don’t set the bar high for themselves, employees take their lead from that. Everyone’s performance declines.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, “Any time you tolerate mediocrity in others it increases your mediocrity.”

Take some time to think about your own leadership role. Where are you tolerating mediocrity in yourself? In others?

It’s time to step up and embrace our leadership accountability and start attacking the virus of mediocrity that’s infecting our organizations.

This week’s gut check question asks: What price are you paying by tolerating mediocrity?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its third edition.

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