05/24/2013 02:13 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

Bulldozing Barriers to Leadership

Leadership has been my business throughout my life, with careers in Girl Scouting and the Drucker Foundation, now The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute. My messages on leadership always have been upbeat (even my blood type is B-positive). Invitations to speak invariably have been on the visions, imperatives, or future of leadership.

So when a group of Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Fellows asked me to address "Barriers to Leadership," I was a little taken aback. It was the only time I've been asked to address the negative aspects of the subject.

The request forced me to shift gears, to consciously distill what I had learned from experience but not yet articulated about barriers to leadership. From this introspection emerged two types of barriers: one personal and self-imposed, the other institutional, structural, or cultural.

Self-Imposed Barriers

• Lack of formal, articulated personal goals and a road map of how to meet them. These should be written and close at hand, not just rolling around in your head.
• No clear understanding of one's own strengths and weaknesses (this calls for input from others, plus a plan for improving).
• Believing that there is something called "business ethics," that there can be two standards: one for our personal lives and one for our professional lives.
• Lack of generosity -- not sharing ideas, time, encouragement, respect, compliments, and feedback with others -- resulting in exactly the same treatment from them.
• Leading from the rear -- being tentative, fence sitting, never taking responsibility.
• Always stressing what others can't do well rather than building on their strengths, what they do uncommonly well.
• Playing "Chicken Little" instead of "The Little Engine That Could." Lack of positive approach to serious issues. Failing to present suggested solutions along with the problem.
• Not taking charge of one's own personal learning and development.

Institutional Barriers

• Hierarchical structures that restrict, constrict, box people in.
• Corporate cultures that encourage mediocrity and reward playing it safe.
• Corporate cultures and practices that kill the messenger.
• Racism and sexism unacknowledged and unaddressed.
• Fuzzy lines of accountability.
• Lack of sharp differentiation between governance and management, and between policy and operations, with no clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
• No mentoring plan for promising staff members.
• Bottom-line mentality; not seeing people as the company's greatest asset.
• Failing to build, now, a richly diverse, pluralistic organization that includes diversity on the board of directors and top management teams.
• Not walking the talk; a leadership team whose behavior doesn't match its message.
• Static staffing structures, with no job rotation ,or job expansion.
• Lack of a formal, articulated plan for succession.

It takes courage for a leader to identify and confront self-imposed barriers, to put in place the personal strategies required to unleash the energy, innovation, and commitment to self-development. It takes equal courage to identify and confront the institutional barriers that limit and inhibit the people of the organization. And it takes real leadership to bulldoze the barriers -- frequently time-honored, tradition-bound, deeply ingrained practices.

But when the barriers come down, the result is a competitive, productive, and motivated workforce focused on the future. Morale soars, performance rises, and the organization is liberated to reach its highest potential. Seeking out the barriers demands high intelligence; doing something about them demands managerial courage.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.