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Gut Check: Are You a Single Point of Failure?

You never know where you’re going to find a leadership lesson.

Recently, I worked with a supplier that my team has used for years. Ron runs the company and it’s a successful business.

I had a job for Ron and his team. Nothing too complex, but it had a tight timeline so that I could meet a client expectation.

Unfortunately, Ron was away on vacation. I worked with his number two and three leaders. It was painful.

They couldn’t get the job done. We went back and forth, back and forth. When Ron came back from vacation, I vented my frustration. The amazing thing was that within five minutes on the phone with Ron, he got what my client needed and turned the job around in a couple hours.

How is this possible?

In Ron’s case, he’s the owner of the company. It’s a small enterprise. He knows the most, does the most and has his hands in on everything. Ron’s team members are nice people, but on their own they really struggle.

I started to wonder: maybe Ron is a control freak? Maybe he’s too strong of a business leader and the others can’t keep up? The challenge for Ron is he’ll never be able to grow his business until he grows the leaders beneath him.

Simply put, Ron is the single point of failure in his own company.

The classic definition of a single point of failure is when a large, complex system is brought to its knees by the failure of one smaller part within.

In this case, Ron did not personally fail to deliver what I needed his company to do for me. He was able to turn that around in hours. His single point of failure is that he hasn’t built the capacity of his team of leaders to step up when he’s not around.

In my experience, I see this dynamic playing out all the time in organizations. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t just happen at the top of the house, it can manifest at any level of leadership.

Why does it happen so frequently? I believe there are several reasons:

  1. You are a strong technical performer. Many organizations have a long history of promoting exceptional technical talent into leadership roles. These people are good at the task at hand, but bad at leading others. Ultimately, they become the single point of failure because they cannot bring their teams up to the same level of performance.
  2. You are a strong leader. Similar to the first example, but in this case your leadership skills simply outshine everyone else. So everyone in your organizations comes to you. You may even find yourself in situations where reverse delegation happens. Team members delegate work up to you because they just can’t do it. Your willingness to take on everyone else’s work leaves the organization weaker.
  3. You are a micro-manager. You keep your fingers in every pie. You don’t let your team grow and develop. When work is manageable, you can get away with this. But when there’s simply too much to do, then things begin to break down.
  4. You need to be the hero. If you need all the glory and the fame that can come with success, then you’ll take everything on. What’s worse, you won’t inspire your team to step up, so they continue to underperform. That hurts your organization.
  5. You don’t have the resources. I see a lot of this today. Companies try to run too lean. Leaders have to lead, but also have to do a ton of work themselves. Organizations need to wake up to the burning out of good people, or turning them into drones who simply check out because they are overworked and undervalued.

At this point, you might be thinking: what’s the way forward?

In my discussions with leaders who have managed to push through one or more of the five scenarios above, it begins with understanding that one of your primary obligations as a leader is to build and develop those that you lead.

You need to find a way to reorient your role so that you are building capacity in your team, which in turn frees you up to do the work only leaders can do. In other words, you can work on improving the system, rather than just being a part of the system. You don’t want to be like Ron, where things don’t get done unless you do them yourself.

If you can achieve this state of leadership accountability, you’ll not only create value for your organization, you’ll build a stronger group of leaders who in turn can do the same with the people they lead.

This week’s gut check for leaders asks: are you a single-point of failure?

The third edition of The Leadership Contract will be available soon.  Check it out.

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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 second edition.

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