27 FEBRUARY, 2017


When it comes to leadership, we all have our own personal styles and methodologies. That’s part of what makes leadership an ongoing journey of development and self discovery. Still, while we can learn from our mistakes, it’s often better to not make them in the first place. We surveyed an international cadre of leadership mentors and public speakers on their thoughts when it comes to which common pitfalls leaders make most often. The results were enlightening.

A lack of shared values

“Leadership is very dynamic. The same person may be a boss of some and a leader of others at the same time. Shared values are what facilitate the leader/follower relationship. Without shared values, only the boss/worker relationship exists. The difference between a boss and a leader is character.”
Mack Story

Even the best leader in the world can’t help an organisation if there isn’t a sense of shared values. Leaders have different specialisations, areas of interest and styles, but it’s the ability to connect with the how and why of the business that ultimately shapes the success of that style.

Does your team share in the vision you have? Do they agree on the path to getting there? Without buy-in from your team, you’re walking towards a fork in the path.

Instead, focus on commonalities within the group and the company. What do you all believe in, beyond the product? An Agile Software Manager might have trouble communicating with a group of legacy developers, but if they can find values to share in, it can drive collaboration and lead to something amazing.

There’s no ‘I’ in Leader

When it comes to common mistakes in leadership, Fabian Dattner, author and founding partner at Dattner Grant, believes many managers fail to think collectively, observing this common error:

“To think in ‘I’ terms, rather than ‘we’, to see their point of view as more valuable than those around them, to tell rather than facilitate, and to be fearful of vulnerability.”

The fear of appearing vulnerable or not having all the answers permeates the executive culture of many organisations, and ultimately creates a work environment that lacks transparency in communication.
Instead, foster an environment of ‘we thinking’, of collective achievements and friendly competitiveness. Ultimately, it’s not staff that are competitive with each other, but businesses in the marketplace. That’s where real functioning teams can take the lead.

Overreaching with team capabilities

We have all met managers that were too eager to take on responsibilities that fell outside the capabilities of their team. Often, this is down to a desire to project an unwavering certainty of action, create a silo, or ship more work to staff, regardless of the context or specialisms of the team.

John Baldoni warns us about these easily identifiable behaviours. “Consider shortcomings such as delegating responsibility without authority, pushing themselves and their teams too hard, and failing to be accountable for results.”

Instead, leaders should not only be accountable for their teams, but actively play to their strengths. Buy into projects you know your collaborators will be passionate about, and defend them against busy work, tasks that are meaningless, or not suited to their skill sets. Strength of character is about knowing when and how to say no, more than taking on more responsibility just for the sake of it.

Failing to trust themselves and their team

One big mistake managers make all too often is to take an attitude of ‘prove yourself to me’ towards their staff. Yes, the team should strive to perform at the top of their capabilities, but the role of a leader isn’t to create conflict to achieve this, but rather to create the space where they can achieve excellence.
“The most common mistake I see leaders making is failing to let go,” says Sonia McDonald, educator and LeadershipHQ. “They hug the work to themselves because they are afraid that no one else will do it as well as they can. But, they also hug their people to themselves, because they are unwilling to let them move on.”

This sort of behaviour is common among managers who are coming into a team, but it can also manifest among leaders who have been in their position too long, or aren’t adapting well to changes in structure and operations over fears of losing valuable staff.

Really, it falls to the manager to assess the team on paper and in person. To put trust in the abilities and certifications, and to let them do their jobs and even help them move onto better positions.

The worst kind of leaders are the ones that try to do their staff’s jobs for them. As McDonald puts it, failure to let go is “…paralysing for everyone involved. No one gets to learn or grow. No one gets to spread their wings. Leaders aren’t leading at all. They are managing… controlling. True leaders encourage others to lead and they can’t do that until they’re prepared to let go.”

If you’ve got a great team, then give them the space to achieve. If your team needs work, try building their confidence with responsibilities they can manage.

A lack of integrity

In a perfect world, honesty would be the only policy. Leaders that are transparent with their processes and behaviour are (on any timeline worth measuring) infinitely more successful than leaders that get what they want through deceit and dishonesty.

Still, it’s sadly not uncommon to see a lack of integrity in leadership positions at many organisations. According to internationally bestselling author and motivational speaker Brian Tracey, dishonesty is a common practice that is at the root of many business failures:
“All too often, we will see people come into leadership positions who do not possess honesty and integrity, which are the foundations of a truly great leader. When your success as a leader is built on lies and manipulation, you will inevitably lead your team or organization to failure.”

If you’ve found your integrity put to the test, remember that every choice and business decision extends beyond the moment when it is made. Your choices are yours alone. Make better decisions by having the fortitude to act with the kind of integrity your staff and followers will respect. Regardless of the outcome, they’ll have your back, and know they can trust your actions.

Failure to understand and measure their success

“Leaders are overly intuitive, getting things right more often than not, but never knowing what their recipe for success is.”
Chris Warner

Confirmation bias is the propensity of humans to interpret new evidence as proof of their already held beliefs. When you achieve in leadership, do you look for evidence of why you were successful, or simply attribute these successes to some innate and unknowable quantity in your personality or disposition?
If you chose the latter, then chances are you’re falling into a trap that has stung many potential great leaders. By not tracking and measuring the qualities of your success now, you won’t be able to successfully negotiate problems in the future. Just like the stock market, past performance isn’t an indicator of future success.

You’ll need tools to stay in touch with your leadership success. Chris Warner has a good one for managing your team and staying in touch with their needs:
“There are six psychological needs that everyone has as a member of a team: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, meaning and personal growth.  A smart leader will make the conscious effort to make sure that those needs are being met, perhaps keeping a little spreadsheet to measure if they are delivering on those needs.”
Warner, who is a noted leadership expert and Emmy nominated filmmaker, concludes:
“If leaders took the time to reflect upon their actions, they would come up with some great checklists, allowing them to deliver excellence more often and much quicker.”

Failure to appreciate the value of technology

In the modern business landscape, financial investment in technology is less about throwing money at the problem, and more about thoughtful planning and process management.

Technology tracks and automates business workflow, yet many companies suffer from a lack of interest in technology among the leadership circle. In fact, according to digitally empowered public speaker and mentor Simon Waller, “Research shows that generally the only group with a lower understanding and less appetite for technology than the C-level executives is the Board of Directors.”

Waller points to the mistaken attitude that technology can be avoided, that it’s something other teams use, but not necessary for leaders and managers to engage with. This is despite renowned tech companies like Google hiring managers who have engineering backgrounds to ensure their software is of the highest calibre.

Waller concludes that “Without a personal investment in digital technology, leaders will never truly appreciate the opportunities, the risks and the impact it will have on the rest of the organisation.”

Not providing adequate feedback

Feedback is a vital first step in leadership that covers both positive and negative performance traits in staff. You might have a team member who answers the phone in an unprofessional manner, continually misses deadlines and is late for meetings. A good leader doesn’t wait for the problem to fix itself. Instead, they address the issue head on.

“If leadership isn’t something you do to people, it’s something you do FOR people, then why is the hardest part is having very uncomfortable conversations with those who are holding the rest if us back?”
Chris Hallberg

Some surveys suggest that failure to provide feedback is the number one mistake most executives make. It cuts both ways as well. Excellent performance demands positive feedback from leadership, and managers should seek feedback from peers and staff. Ideally, staff should feel comfortable to give feedback freely. A manager who receives little feedback from their staff might feel secure in their performance, but it’s just as likely to be the opposite.

Not acting on problem staff

Part of being a great leader is acknowledging that not everyone will follow you, and not every staff member will understand or want to buy into your vision. There are a number of reasons why this can happen:

  •  Staff member has different beliefs
  • Not a good fit for the company or environment
  • Underqualified
  • Overqualified
  • Dissatisfaction in personal life
  • Poor workplace habits
  • The list goes on

The worst thing you can do as a leader is pretend you can fix everything. Sometimes the best course of action is to stop trying to make someone fit in, and instead move forward without them.
“The biggest mistake I see leaders making in the business world is trying to take the square peg and attempt to shove it into the round hole again and again. In almost all cases of extreme business turn arounds, big growth spurts, and pretty much all the most dramatic leadership team transformations that I’ve been a part of, the moment where they stopped kidding themselves, looked at the data, looked at the behavior, then made the hard but right decision for everyone else… Chains are meant to be strong. Stop being a weak link and make your team stronger by not ignoring other obvious weak links.”
Chris Hallberg

Too much talking and not enough listening

Some leaders talk more than others, but all leaders who talk too much are making a common leadership mistake. Talking too much can manifest itself in a number of ways:

  • Talking over others
  • Interrupting conversations
  • Commandeering meetings
  • Running overtime on presentations
  • Failing to ask questions
  • Not retaining information (too busy waiting to talk).

For Lynne Cazaly, public speaker and author of Leader as Facilitator, it comes down to wanting to know all the answers.

“Many leaders may unconsciously think they need to have the answers or a response all the time; but they don’t. They might also think they have to speak when it’s quiet, but they don’t. They might think they have to keep explaining; but they don’t. Why don’t they shut up? Ask a damn good question, and then listen.”

Next time you feel the urge to hijack a conversation, try asking a question. You’ll be amazed what you can achieve as a leader if you give others the chance to speak.

Learning from your mistakes to become a better leader

Leading a group of people, no matter what the situation, level or organisation, can be a tumultuous experience. It’s important to take the time to reflect and learn from your mistakes, to ensure you can grow and improve, to make yourself a better role model for all those who look up to you. Listen to your staff, take criticism gracefully, and trust both yourself and your team’s capabilities.