7 Habits Of Unsuccessful Elected Officials

In January elected officials are sworn into office to begin their terms as village board members on up to the highest public offices. New terms of office always start with such promise but many political leaders fail in their efforts.

Eight years ago Sydney Finkelstein a professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College wrote a book titled Why Smart Executives Fail. In the book Finkelstein researched why 50 former big name companies failed and he determined that the senior executives at the companies all had 7 Habits in common. Finkelstein calls them the Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives.

While Finkelstein’s book focused on private sector executives, political leaders fail for the same reasons and can learn from the seven identified bad habits. I have replaced any references to “CEO” with “elected official” “company” with “office” or “government”to fit the seven habits to one holding an elected office.

The short version of the seven habits:

Conversations with myself: Seven disastrous thoughts of unsuccessful elected officials

Habit #1: “Our policies are superior, and so am I. We’re untouchable. My government is successful because of my leadership and intellect-I made it happen.”

Habit #2: “I am in charge. This government is my baby. Obviously, my wants and needs are in the best interest of my community and government.”

Habit #3: ” I’m a genius. I believe in myself and you should too. Don’t worry, I know all the answers. I’m not micro-managing; I’m being attentive. I don’t need anyone
else, certainly not a team.”

Habit #4: “If you’re not with me, you’re against me! Get with the plan, or get out of the way. Where’s your loyalty?”

Habit #5: “I’m the spokesperson. It’s all about image. I’m a promotions and public relations genius. I love making public appearances; that’s why I star in our commercials.
It’s my job to be socially visible; that’s why I give frequent speeches and have regular media coverage.”

Habit #6: “It’s just a minor roadblock. Full steam ahead! Let’s keep our mishaps from the public.

Habit #7: “It has always worked this way in the past. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.”

The long version of the seven habits follows:

Habit #1: They see themselves and their office as dominating their environment

While trying to shape the future and set the pace in one’s community can be a good thing. Failed leaders vastly overestimate the extent to which they actually control events. As far as they’re concerned, everyone else is present to execute their personal vision.

Warning Sign for #1: A lack of respect

Habit #2: They identify so completely with their office that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and the public interest

We want leaders to be completely committed to public service, with their interests tightly aligned with those of their office. But digging deeper, you find that failed leaders weren’t identifying too little with their office, but rather too much. Instead of treating their office as a public service, failed leaders treated their office as n extensions of themselves. And with that, a “private empire” mentality took hold.

Leaders who possess this outlook often use their public office to carry out personal ambitions. The most slippery slope of all for these leaders is their tendency to use public funds for personal reasons. Being an elected official in communities small and large is viewed by some as becoming king of the community, and that’s a dangerous title to assume.

Warning Sign for #2: A question of character

Habit #3: They think they have all the answers

The image of executive competence that we’ve been taught to admire for decades is: a dynamic leader making a dozen decisions a minute, dealing with many crisis simultaneously, and taking only seconds to size up situations that have stumped everyone else for days. The problem with this picture is that it’s a fraud. Leaders who are invariably crisp and decisive tend to settle issues so quickly they have no opportunity to grasp the ramifications. Worse, because these leaders need to feel they have all the answers, they aren’t open to learning new ones.

Warning Sign for #3: A leader without followers

Habit #4: They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t completely behind them

Leaders who think their job is to instill belief in their vision also think that it is their job to get everyone to buy into it. Anyone who doesn’t rally to the cause is undermining the vision. Hesitant managers have a choice: Get with the plan or leave.

The problem with this approach is that it’s both unnecessary and destructive. Leaders don’t need to have everyone unanimously endorse their vision to have it carried out successfully. In fact, by eliminating all dissenting and contrasting viewpoints, destructive leaders cut themselves off from their best chance of seeing and correcting problems as they arise. Sometimes leaders who seek to stifle dissent only drive it underground. Once this happens, the entire organization falters.

Warning Sign for #4: Executive departures

Habit #5: They are consummate spokespersons, obsessed with the image of their office

You know these elected officials: high profile officials who are constantly in the public eye. The problem is that amid all the media frenzy and accolades, these leaders’ management efforts become shallow and ineffective. Instead of actually accomplishing things, they often settle for the appearance of accomplishing things.

When elected officials are obsessed with their image, they have little time for operational details. They will sometimes intervene in remarkably minor matters, but leave most of the day-to-day operations unsupervised.

Warning Sign of #5: Blatant attention-seeking

Habit #6: They underestimate obstacles

Part of the allure of being an elected official is the opportunity to espouse a vision. Yet, when leaders become so enamored of their vision, they often overlook or underestimate the difficulty of actually getting there. And when it turns out that the obstacles they casually waved aside are more troublesome than they anticipated, these leaders have a habit of plunging full-steam into the abyss. Some elected leaders feel an enormous need to be right in every important decision they make, because if they admit to being fallible, their position as an elected official might seem precarious. Once an elected official admits that he or she made the wrong call, there will always be people who say the elected official wasn’t up to the job. These unrealistic expectations make it exceedingly hard for an elected official to pull back from any chosen course of action, which not surprisingly causes them to push that much harder.

Warning Sign of #6: Excessive hype

Habit #7: They stubbornly rely on what worked for them in the past

Many leaders on their way to becoming spectacularly unsuccessful accelerate their decline by reverting to what they regard as tried and true methods. In their desire to make the most of what they regard as their core strengths, they cling to the status quo. They insist on doing things the way they have always been done or they fail to consider innovations in areas other than those that made their organization successful. Instead of considering a range of options that fit new circumstances, they use their own careers as the only point of reference and do the things that made them successful in the past.

Warning Sign of #7: Constantly referring to what worked in the past

When our elected leaders fail it is the community they serve that loses. Perhaps as elected leaders start their terms of office they can learn from the mistakes of others. What do you think about this list of bad habits?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Appreciate these thoughts, Paul.

On #2 – this has been my fear for a couple years as it pertains to elected officials and social media…that politicians aren’t seeing the long-term implications of their myopia. They are stewards, not static fixtures.