What is the biggest mistake that leaders make?

by admin on December 8, 2009

One-Minute Answer: The other day I enjoyed a cup of my favorite coffee—a grande half-caff with four shots of mocha syrup and negative room at Starbucks. I was there to meet my Pennsylvania State Representative for the first time. We had a pleasant time getting acquainted. As often happens when a new friend learns of my passion for leadership, the conversation was peppered with Q&A moments. In this case the Representative thought to ask the most important question of all—the one above.

You might ask, “Why is a negative question at the top of the list? Isn’t it always better to ask a positive one?” No! We learn more in the negative than in the positive. Our failures teach us more than our victories do.

Look at it this way. When I educate managers on the best practices of leadership, they appear to have an easy time reassuring themselves that they follow many of them. By contrast, when I identify leadership behaviors to avoid I encounter greater candor and even halting introspection as those same managers wonder, “Do I resemble that?” In other words, negative teaching convicts more convincingly than positive teaching does.

If you are likewise ready to be confronted by your leadership demons, prepare yourself to read about the most serious faults I spot in the leaders I coach.

Five-Minute Answer: When my Representative asked the question, I suggested that there was more than one major roadblock to leadership success, but I only had time to elaborate on the first two. (Hopefully, he’s reading this and will benefit from adding the other nine.)

  1. Succumbing to fear. Leaders who second-guess themselves, create indecision among their reports. Those who look over their shoulders to see if anyone is approaching with a dagger, take their eye off the prize. Those who request permission from higher ups rather than seek forgiveness, when necessary, limit progress. Insecure leaders often fall somewhere on a scale running from “wimp” on one end to “bully” on the other end. Get off that scale!
  2. Failing to hold people accountable. If you don’t establish your rules of the road and if you don’t impose consequences for failure to obey them, you’ll lose the respect of your people. If you ignore, or worse accommodate, non-performers or troublemakers, you’re deserving of the poor results you get.
  3. Refusing to learn. When is the last time you were able to say, “I was wrong?” If you believe you seldom make mistakes, if other’s criticism of you is rarely valid, and if you believe you know more than the people around you, people are suffering from your insufferablility. Neither are you getting any better.
  4. Not seeing themselves as others do. Soon after becoming a leadership coach I recognized the most important service I provide. That is to help leaders recognize the three “you’s”: (1) the “you” that you see, (2) the “you” that others see, and (3) the “you” that is. And of these three, the second is the one that really matters. It determines the impact you’re having on others and therefore the degree of good or bad you contribute to their contribution. Leaders who are unaware of their impact or, worse yet, don’t care about it, are off the list of inspiring leaders.
  5. Relating to people as objects. Do you connect with the people you lead out of their roles—“admin,” “technician,” “vice president”—or as individual human beings with feelings, pain, wishes, ambitions, weaknesses, and desires for love and acceptance? If you’re having more luck getting people to use their hands than their hearts, you’ll profit from bringing more compassion into your relationships with those who look up to you.
  6. Not delegating enough. Are you doing work that your company ought to be paying less to have done? Are your dives to the tactical altitude of three feet keeping you from being fully operational at the strategic altitude of 30,000 feet? Does the time you spend in the weeds get in your people’s way and suppress their growth?
  7. Burying their heads in the sand. Do you shy away from confrontation? Do you avoid bad news? Do you sweep interpersonal conflict under the rug? Do you act as if things are better than they are? Leaders who display an aversion for the negative encourage direct reports to protect them from depressing outcomes by misrepresenting the facts and at times outright lying about them.
  8. Valuing “what” over “how.” Try on for size any one of these exhortations of employees. “Remain focused!” “Stay the course!” “Show your commitment!” “Don’t lose sight of our goals!” “Make the numbers!” If any of them fit, you qualify as a what leader. You believe that keeping people focused on outcomes will produce them. If I was choosing a boss, I’d rather work for one who valued outcomes just as much, but coached me through the how; that is, helping me learn and apply the right things to do to make outcomes happen.
  9. Acting unethically. On June 3 and 10, 2009 we covered the topic of ethics exhaustively. What does it say that these two ASKs generated the lowest level of readership up to that point on this web site? Let me answer the question. Most leaders (all leaders?) believe their actions are highly ethical. Given what I hear from several of the people who report to them, that is not a valid assumption nearly as often as it should be.
  10. Leading in a spoke network. When you sit at the hub of a spoke network, your employees communicate largely through you and to you in the discharge of their duties. If, instead, information on your team flies freely in whatever direction is needed to be optimally effective with each task, you lead in a star network. When your self-protective need to control the flow of messages launches a spoke network, creativity is clogged and progress is thwarted.
  11. Being a failure-preventer rather than a success-insurer. Would you rather work for someone whose focus was on keeping you out of trouble or one who empowered you to become all you could be? Would you admire a boss who chided you not to make mistakes or one who spotlighted exciting goals? Would you thrive under the tutelage of a manager who first dwelt on the downside of every opportunity or one who first made an encouraging case for the benefits?

What Would You Add?: If there is a 12th major leadership mistake, what do you believe it is? I’ll publish the best entry next week, giving preference to an actual story of you making it and learning from it.

Well? If it’s reasonable to assume that you’re somewhere up above, where is it? To know ourselves diseased is half our cure, as someone once said. So admit your leadership failing and immediately reap your 50% bonus.

Enough Said: The greatest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one. ~Elbert Hubbard

Coming: Next week I’ll share with you some great quotes about persisting in the face of adversity along with companion commentary. Get ready to have your spirits lifted during this sacred season.


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