Why Leaders Don’t Lead…and “Big Boys and Girls” Don’t Follow

Jon Benfer, Director of Executive Coaching

The Arbinger Institute

A recent complaint we received from a manager:

“I do my job, I get my results, and no one has to chase me down or manage me. Well my employees are also ‘big boys and girls’ and should be able to get results: I pay them top salaries, they were hired because of their competence and expertise, I trust and expect them to get things done. But when things become critical, or go wrong, no one steps up and takes responsibility and delivers results! I don’t know what to do!”

Like most of us, you’re probably nodding your head thinking “I know exactly what that feels like”. But before we get too far into lamenting our problems, let’s take a look at how “the box” may be distorting this situation.

Recall that “the box” is a metaphor for the experience of self-deception. In “the box”, we distort how we see ourselves, others, and even the world of work in order to justify what we haven’t done (or what we have done that we might regret).

The “big boys and girls box”

This leader’s complaint, although not immediately obvious, reveals more about the manager’s justification (and problems) than about the competence of their team! Viewing oneself as able to “get results”, provides justification for expecting the same of everyone else… and absolves us of any responsibility if our team and colleagues fail to deliver. After all, they are “big boys and girls” and shouldn’t need me to help them with everything they do.

Isn’t a leader’s job to lead? To help their team get results?

The “big boys and girls box” provides leaders with justification for expecting unreasonable results, together with a big BUT:

  • Without providing leadership
  • Without investing the time and energy to develop the team
  • Without taking ultimate responsibility for actually getting results

(Very similar to some of the frustrations parents experience when they expect their children to be competent and responsible, but without first investing the love and time to develop these characteristics with their children).

How does this “box” develop?

Almost every leader we work with faces extreme demands on their time. Deadlines, meetings, reports and more meetings. Hiring competent people is often an attempt to share some of this workload. However, when we forget to invest the time to build quality relationships with our people and to nurture their ability to deliver results, we open the door to the “big boys and girls box.”

This manager, for example, discovered that he hadn’t been having regular face time with his direct reports, hadn’t been helping them to set goals, and hadn’t taken time to clarify his expectations for them (which up until then had simply gone unsaid). And because of his “big boys and girls box”, he was blaming them for the resulting problems, instead of taking responsibility and action to improve the situation.

So why can’t leaders lead?

Justification and self deception. Our boxes provide us with a way of seeing situations that justify our failure to take responsibility and lead. Self-deception blinds us from seeing we are doing it. Any box we carry will get in our way as leaders, as it will provide some form of justification to not do what is needed and blame others for the problems.

So how do we get out of the “big boys and girls box”?

  1. Identify the signs of the box (ie. unreasonable expectations on ourselves & others, feelings of blame/frustration when others fail to deliver, unwillingness to help)
  2. Find a place to reflect and make note of what our justification has excused us from doing, for example: taking time with our team, setting clear goals, listening, clarifying, teaching, etc. (Note, if you struggle with this, it helps to sit down and listen to your team – they are sure to tell you where they need more support!)
  3. Take action! Do what you haven’t been doing. And keep doing it!

We welcome your thoughts and experiences with this “box”. When have you slipped into it? What was the impact it had on the situation? Did you get the results you wanted? Take a moment to share your thoughts with us by commenting below and join the discussion!
Also as you begin thinking about other boxes that keep you from leading, follow along in the coming weeks as we explore more “boxes” that impact leaders.



“We were such a basket-case that the most effective consulting firm we could find (and it has a very high national profile) could do nothing with us, despite months of trying. Fortunately, this firm was familiar with Arbinger and referred us to them. Nothing has been the same since. We are now the most profitable company in our industry – doubling and even tripling the ROI of our nearest competitors.”

Chairman and CEO, Tubular Steel