People who lead or who aspire to leadership have plenty of available advice about how they should behave as inspiring leaders. However, sometimes we benefit from knowing what behaviors to avoid, and leadership is no exception. Often, well-intentioned leaders may overlook some action or inaction that can derail their leadership effectiveness.
One of the challenges that leaders face is that they may find themselves in a position where others aren’t willing to point out their missteps. Before they know it, those behaviors have become habits that over time can derail their effectiveness as a leader.
Leaders rarely intend to commit these offenses, but they can still undermine their reputations and impair their credibility and influence. Here are five leadership blunders, in no particular order of importance. Each can negatively impact your ability to lead effectively; combined they can become significant barriers.
Leadership Mistake # 1: Forgetting that People Hold Leaders to Higher Standards
Leaders are on continuously on display—regarding their appearance, their behavior, and their demeanor. Like the television commercial that said, “Don’t ever let them see you sweat,” leaders have a particular obligation to maintain their poise, composure, and competence in any situation. If you are under stress and frazzled, find a way to retreat and collect yourself before you deal with your employees. Coming unglued in front of your direct reports can create damage that may take months to repair. That’s not the same as simply showing emotion and admitting your vulnerability, which can create stronger bonds.
Make sure that you model the values and principles that you espouse. If you tout punctuality, be on time at your meetings and meetings you attend. If you insist that your direct reports demonstrate a certain level of professionalism in their dress and behavior, go the extra mile in demonstrating what you want to see. When you don’t bring your “A” game, it undermines your ability to raise the level of others’ performance.
Leadership Mistake #2: Feeling the need to put your “fingerprints” on everything
In his excellent and practical book, What Got You Here Won’t Get you There, Marshall Goldsmith discusses the mistake that successful managers make by trying to add their own special value to everything going on in the office or department.
When leaders make random, off the cuff suggestions about the work that employees are doing, they need to understand that their position lends special credence to everything they say. A simple “what if” becomes a mandate, and it can send employees scurrying to fulfill the leader’s wishes. Effective leaders delegate and encourage their followers to come to their own conclusions. They listen carefully and thoughtfully consider the plan as their employees present it, without piling on with their own ideas.
In some cases, the leader may indeed need to suggest or change the direction in which things are going, but only when a clear and defensible reason exists.
Leadership Mistake #3: Blaming rather than solving
When people make mistakes, particularly costly ones, it’s easy to focus on the offense—and the offender. Leaders often feel partly responsible when things go wrong on their watch, and they recognize the possibility that their leadership ability will come into question when their followers fail. As a result, they become defensive and may lash out at those who caused the embarrassment.
Certainly, leaders need to hold others accountable, but concentrating on placing blame and punishing the wrongdoer does not resolve the issue. A leader can make sure that the person learns from the experience without being malevolent in dealing with the problem. Further, knowing that a leader is going to react to mistakes and failure vehemently and vindictively creates an atmosphere of fear and makes employees wary of taking any action or assuming responsibility.
Leaders have a great opportunity to demonstrate their effectiveness by helping employees recover from errors and continuing to encourage their personal growth and empowerment.
Leadership Mistake #4: Losing the passion for learning
People look to their leaders for answers, and these leaders often have the right answers, based on their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Experience has taught us to default to the familiar and rely on what we know has worked before. Leaders can easily fall into the trap of resting on their laurels. They’ve been there and done that. But, when we think that we have arrived and we cease to grow, we begin a steady decline. We all know people who are old at 40, in terms of their continued capacity to learn, adapt, and develop.
In their book on lifetime leadership, Geeks and Geezers, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas assert that true leaders of any age continue to be effective by maintaining a youthful curiosity and zest for knowledge.
Effective leaders know that they can learn something from everyone, and they understand the importance of continuing to challenge their own boundaries by expanding their knowledge and recognizing the learning and contributions of others.
Leadership Mistake #5: Believing that you can command commitment
We hear leaders talk about how they demand 100% commitment from each of their followers, but in reality, we can’t force people to be committed. We can certainly command compliance. You might say to an employee, “If you don’t do A, B, and C, you won’t keep your job. And you will get exactly that—A, B, and C, and probably not much more. Compliance is what we pay for. Compliance is acceptable performance.
Commitment, on the other hand, is always a choice. We choose to go the second mile, when the requirement is only that we travel the first. Pat MacMillan, CEO of Triaxia Partners, an Atlanta-based consulting firm, says that the difference between commitment and compliance is often the difference between acceptable and exceptional behavior.
Although leaders can’t command commitment, they can support an environment where people choose to go beyond requirements and to do their best.