When leaders become the square peg in their organization’s round hole

Square Peg in a Round Hole

Why was it so predictable that in such a short period of time Donald Trump would become the lightning rod for so much criticism from the media and the public?  Why did he trip so many political land mines in in the first few weeks of his Presidency?  And why did a man who many credit with having built a successful business empire have so much difficulty transitioning from the gold plated environs of Trump Tower to the Oval Office in the People’s House?

The answer is found in the old idiom…a square peg in a round hole.

Trump, like so many other entrepreneurs, sole proprietors, self-employed professionals (i.e. physicians, attorneys, accountants, real estate investors, etc.) may have excelled in their business or professional life but when thrust into an environment when accountability is required and where process is as important as product these individuals fail as leaders.  Such is very often the case when an executive of a privately held company finds her/himself at the helm of a publicly owned business and even more so when they are expected to lead government or nonprofit organizations.

The CEO of a privately owned enterprise has no responsibility to a board of directors or shareholders.  Decisions are typically made by taking one’s own counsel and not taking or even spurning advice and input of others.  This is the person who manages rather than leads.  This is the person who projects his own views, opinions and policies in an autocratic style without taking counsel from others.  The consequence in a private business environment is typically limited to personal gain or loss and not the benefit or harm to others.

These are the people that expect and often demand complete obedience from others.  They may be an imperious or domineering person who is most comfortable holding absolute power.  They often believe that their point of view and their opinion is always correct.  Hubris, arrogance, and narcissism often characterize those who have only themselves to answer to.

But when these individuals assume a leadership role in the public or nonprofit sectors they often fail to adapt to a new way of doing business.  They bristle at the idea that they need to include others in their decision making process.  They struggle when confronted by resistance from the loyal opposition. They can’t understand why when they say jump their followers don’t ask “how high?”.

Trying to lead in the public or nonprofit sector the way one has led in their own closely held enterprise is when they often find themselves as the proverbial square peg in a round hole.  Their business practices, behaviors, personality and business style may have worked when they called all the shots without push back.  They can’t and won’t accept their mistakes or foibles.  And their lack of compassion, humility and dedication to others more than themselves make it impossible to force their sharp edged peg to fit neatly and comfortably into an environment which favors smooth and round edges.

Donald Trump is the most notable and visible example of a square peg trying to hammer himself into a round hole.  But he is not alone.  Too often, volunteer leaders of nonprofit organizations ascend to the head of the board table with either a lack of experience in a very different environment or an unwillingness to learn from the new playbook.

Inexperience is not a fatal flaw. What one doesn’t know can be learned when a leader is open to coaching and counsel.  The unwillingness to modify old ways of doing business and the failure to adapt to the necessary group process that is required by publicly controlled business, government or the nonprofit organization is a prescription for failure.  Success without change in one’s leadership style is often a bridge too far.  Leaders fail when ambition overreaches capability.  And the biggest possible sledgehammer will never force a square peg to fit neatly into a round hole.

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