05/03/2012 09:46 am ET | Updated Jul 03, 2012

The Rush of Leadership

I help executives at all levels who are frustrated with their managers acting more like babysitters than business leaders. And yet, I end up not being able to do much for 70 percent of the people who come my way. In baseball, with that sort of average, I would be Hall of Fame material; in basketball, I would be grade school caliber. That's life.

Why only 30 percent? Because I can't get out of the 70 percent's heads this notion that leadership is clean and noble, above the fray, pose and ye shall lead. Too many of them have learned their definition of leadership from books or classrooms. And those that are in leadership positions often shy away from messy situations where a very difficult, direct conversation is called for. Here's an example.

I was working on a project with one of my clients a while back that involved planning a departmental meeting of about 100 people. The vice president and a few of his managers and I formed a planning committee. We decided to break up the department into smaller, cross-functional teams to work through some discussion questions. We assigned each member of the leadership team to one of the cross-functional groups to serve as facilitator. We also decided to specifically assign each member of the department to a specific team.

We were in the last planning meeting before the event and the VP was reviewing the discussion team assignments. Only change he wanted to make was to switch him in and one of his managers out of a particular team. His rationale? "There's a lot of difficult people on that team, I'd rather take it than Megan." Megan's reply? "Thanks, a couple of those folks gave me a hard time during the quality rollout last year." I was flabbergasted. Here's why.

All Megan can talk about is how much she is a leader, based on her selection for a leadership development program with her previous employer and her MBA from a nationally recognized university. When she runs into people who "resist" her ideas, she brushes them off with "they don't get it." She's polished and says all the right things. And she's a terrible leader because she hasn't learned the key lesson when it comes to being a leader.

Leaders rush into burning buildings to take care of things while the rest of us are running out of them. That's what makes them heroes in our eyes because we know they are doing something we're too afraid to do ourselves. We all know those people who do a lot of "putting out fires" in their work. But let's face it: Those fires are more like "camp fires" with the equivalent of Boy Scouts getting the job done (nothing against Boy Scouts, mind you).

Leaders rush in while everyone else is running out. That tells me it's a pretty big fire. Each fire fighter is a leader because on any given day, one of them may think twice about going into the burning building. And yet they see one of their colleagues plunging ahead into danger. That's all it takes for the spark of inspiration to motivate the hesitant firefighter to enter the perilous situation. Megan thinks the fire chief is the leader. She couldn't be more wrong.

Later that day I pulled Megan aside and told her what I saw and connected the dots for her on where she dropped the leadership ball. She acknowledged she missed an opportunity to step up and even admitted, "I was wondering what you were thinking at that moment." I told her I was here to help her come up with a strategy to work with the difficult people. I pointed out to her it wasn't too late to make it right -- just go up to her VP, thank him for the offer but say you want to keep the original assignment. She said she'd think about it. When the event arrived, there she was, sitting with the safe team. Swing and a miss, strike three; clang, off the rim. No hero that day.