What are the biggest mistakes that leaders make?

by admin on January 5, 2010

One-Minute Answer: Your response to the December 9, 2009 broadcast on this same topic was overwhelming. You sent in suggestions for a 12th leadership mistake, you were lavish with your praise, and more of you opened it than usual. You inspired this question to return for a curtain call.


Some of you wondered where the original list came from: the very same source as this one. I closed my eyes and pictured, in turn, the scores of executives I had worked with for over 30 years. Most of them were outstanding leaders. Yet, all had an Achilles heel somewhere in their behavioral repertoire. My job as their coach was to help them locate those vulnerabilities and then shore them up.


So here we go with another list of the major errors of omission and commission that you and I have seen in the leaders we have followed or worked along side. The real trick will be for both of us to own up to where we may be on the list and to vow to get better.


Five-Minute Answer: A few of these leadership mistakes have to do with team or corporate strategy; the majority focuses on your personal influencing style, no matter where or at what level you practice it.


1. Not developing leadership bench strength. Every CEO heading an organization with two dozen managers or more should establish a Leadership Academy. This internal program ensures that all managers, from first-line supervisors to senior executives are trained and coached in the best practices of leadership. The Academy also houses the responsibility for succession planning.

2. Waiting too long to pull the trigger. Once an underperformer is discovered, immediately redirect that employee’s path. (Hopefully, the last performance review received will have also pinpointed the problem.) If that doesn’t resolve matters within a few weeks, put the person on a formal performance improvement plan. Depending on the situation, allow anywhere from another one to six months for marked improvement with a clear understanding that noncompliance with the plan will lead to termination.

3. Getting too lean in bad times. When business declines, it makes sense to cut back on expenditures and even reduce the size of your staff. The problem is when in anticipation of further revenue deterioration your cuts become draconian. Cut your staff too thin and you risk a morale disaster as well as limiting your potential to ride the curve with gusto when it swings upward.

4. Getting too fat in good times. When business takes off, it’s tempting to let your staff and your expenditures balloon beyond what is justified and prudent.

5. Believing you hired Kreskin the mind reader. Some bosses give followers a job description and then challenge them to figure out what’s most important among their duties as well as how to carry them out. As a result, a major reason that employees fail to meet the expectations of their supervisors is that they are unstated.

6. Withholding feedback. W. Edwards Deming is credited with inventing the total quality movement, first in Japan in the 1950’s and sometime later in the U.S. Consider his conclusion about feedback as well as the point immediately above when he said, “Fully 80% of American managers cannot answer these seemingly simple questions: What is my job? What in it really counts? And how well am I doing?” When I ask employees I meet what they think of the feedback they receive from their boss, their #1 response is “What feedback?”

7. Placing blame. When things go wrong is your focus on “Who did it?” or on “Why did it happen and what did we learn from it?” Blame placers spawn underlings afraid to own up to failures and motivated to hide them.

8. Failing to refresh. Your first year in a position of leadership is a time of growing into your new assignment. Once you find your level, the next two or three years are a time of making your maximum contribution. Then the likelihood of decline sets in as you hear yourself saying “we tried that before,” “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” or “stay the course.” Leaders at this stage of their tenure have to reinvent themselves. They’ll gain from a leadership coach, an executive development course at a top ranked university, a CEO support group, or trendy books, magazines, and newsletters.

9. Hiding out. A number of years ago Tom Peters gave us MBWA: Managing by Wandering Around. Its premise is simple: to show your team that you care and to make yourself more accessible to them. But take care not to make the mistake of “wandering around” to spy on people—that is, to gain control from the practice rather than using it to confirm your presence.

10. Not connecting with customers. Top leaders need to be visible in the marketplace, especially among current customers. Those at the top of customer hierarchies will deeply appreciate “no agenda visits”—in person or over the telephone—from you.

11. Not stressing internal customer service. Many executive cheerleaders root wildly for more excellent external customer service. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard one call as passionately for the internal functions of finance, sales, marketing, production, engineering, purchasing, and HR to serve each other. Yet, the quality of external customer service perfectly correlates with the quality of the internal variety.

…and the Biggest Mistake of All!

12. Believing your press clippings. Humility may be the forgotten leadership virtue. It is the most important, yet most difficult, personal asset to protect as your good deeds elevate you in the corporate hierarchy. The truest measure of your leadership success is the answer to this question: “Do people want to follow you?” The answer will be a resounding no if they see vanity, pride, smugness, conceit, hubris, arrogance, haughtiness, immodesty, egotism, narcissism, selfishness, self-love, self-righteousness, or big-headedness. No wonder Jim Collins in his management classic Good to Great concludes that “deep personal humility” is a defining quality of successful CEOs.



Enough Said: “But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.” ~Psalms 37:11 (KJV)


Next week we’ll put the shoe on the other foot with “How can I build credibility with my boss?” The answers to that question will be full of value for everyone who reports to anyone.

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