Ten Mistakes Every Leader Should Make…And Learn From!

One of our mentors, the excellent leadership writer and professor James O’Toole, has been heard to say, “I don’t know if leadership can be TAUGHT, but I believe it can be LEARNED.” If that’s true, then becoming better leaders is all about experience: we learn from changing jobs, stretch assignments, our peers and followers, and bosses both good and bad. Often those experiences that are the most difficult or painful teach us best: tough times are the real crucibles for forging leaders.

In interviews, some savvy recruiters like to ask candidates to talk about mistakes they have made. These interviewers are looking for indicators of self-awareness, openness, humility, and resilience. Successful people are able to be candid and insightful about their missteps, but what really sets them apart is that they also LEARN FROM their mistakes. They take a risk, and if they fall down they don’t point fingers or make excuses; they pick themselves up, reflect on what they have learned, and carry that learning forward to their next challenge.

So when it comes to developing as a leader, mistakes are not always a bad thing. Here are ten mistakes every leader should make, and learn from:

1. TAKING TOO LONG TO FIRE A PROBLEM PERFORMER. Regret about not moving faster on C-players or trouble-makers is an admission we hear often, whether from seasoned executives or new leaders. The problem can be that the leader refused to accept that the person was not a good fit; thought they could perform a “miracle” and save the employee; or were aware of the problem but just unwilling or unable to have a difficult conversation.

2. PUTTING TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON CREDENTIALS AND EXPERIENCE in a hiring decision, and not enough on personality and cultural fit. This a mistake our colleague Kristina DiStasio made with the very first person she ever hired. Candidate A had a Master’s degree and 10 years’ experience but came with several whispered warnings of “a little temper problem.” Candidate B had no fancy degree and limited experience, but was generally seen as a high potential with great relationship-building skills. Kristina hired Candidate A, who turned out to be a disaster; Candidate B was later promoted to department head. Lesson learned.

3. NOT HAVING A VISION. Without a clear and compelling vision or story to rally around, it is almost impossible for teams or organizations to have a sense of purpose, priorities, or meaningful goals. Everything devolves into day-to-day, reactive, transactional business-as-usual. When leaders get feedback that their people want “more communication, it is almost always because followers cannot connect their own work and responsibilities to some broader purpose or strategy.

4. FAILING TO “MANAGE UP.” When it comes to their relationship with a hands-off or very busy boss, too many leaders operate under the assumption that “no news is good news” or “my performance speaks for itself.” While autonomy can be liberating, it is critical to keep your manager informed of your team’s accomplishments, and to build a meaningful relationship that can be leveraged when needed. It is dangerous to assume that your boss is aware of your good work or
will be an advocate for you and your team when the going gets tough.

5. OVER-RELYING ON A FEW STRENGTHS. Constantly going back to your proven strengths and not spending time broadening them or developing new ones is a sure recipe for stagnation. Are you “sharpening your own saw”? What got you here may not get you to the next level, and sometimes our strengths turn into our weaknesses. Without continuous development you’ll stop growing and fall behind. The best leaders are always working to learn and get better.

6. NOT LISTENING. The failure to listen (or, more fundamentally, the failure to allow others to feel heard) is a blind spot for some leaders, especially ones who think of themselves as smart and results-focused. It often takes a major screw-up based on not paying attention to what others are trying to tell them to make these leaders realize how important listening really is.

7. THE DESIRE TO BE LIKED BY EVERYONE. Consensus is important, and the best leaders often lead “from the middle,” but a position of authority is not a popularity contest. Good leaders build deep relationships but don’t try to be everyone’s friend or make all parties unconditionally happy. Leading effective change usually means not everyone is going to get what they want, and sometimes you have to take the heat for that.

8. NOT ASKING FOR HELP. Driving around lost for hours because you are too proud or stubborn to ask for directions might make a funny television commercial, but if you’re a leader this behavior can have disastrous consequences. Good leaders know that they don’t personally have to have all the answers, as long as they facilitate the process of getting to the best outcome. Leaders who can’t admit “I don’t know” tend to alienate their own leaders as well as their followers.

9. IGNORING YOUR PEERS. Many of us tend to harbor some distrust of our peers, perhaps because we think they want the same thing we do: our manager’s job. As a result, some leaders make the mistake of only paying attention “up and down,” to their boss and employees, and fail to look “sideways.” The inability to build lateral coalitions can prevent a leader from getting the cooperation and support needed to solve cross-functional problems or lead change. And if you do get promoted into your boss’s job, don’t you want your new set of direct reports to know and trust you?

10. NOT HEARING OR BEING OPEN TO FEEDBACK. One of the most common suggestions found in executive 360 reports is “ask for my input and opinion more often.” We may not solicit feedback because we are not comfortable hearing it, or because we think that asking for it somehow diminishes our power or authority. In fact, it’s the exact opposite: by requesting feedback we can learn valuable things AND also project our self-confidence. Requesting input is also a great way to gain trust and deepen relationships, because people feel valued when you ask their opinion.

We found this list of errors pretty easy to write, but we’re also willing to bet it’s not complete. What are some of the other mistakes you think every leader should make as part of his or her own development and growth? Send us a note: info@nevinsconsulting.com

"The only real training for leadership is leadership.” —Sir Antony Jay


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