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Top 10 Common Mistakes Made by Our Best Leaders

I’m in the business of helping leaders become extraordinary; better than the average or common version of leadership many of us have to tolerate in our organisations and communities. Along that journey from good to great my clients often find that they have been making seemingly small but profoundly important mistakes, that once corrected can make a remarkable difference to their leadership.

Here are ten more common mistakes.

1. Not letting go

Being in control is a part of leadership although you can easily overdo it. Over controlling, micromanaging, perfectionism and autocratic leadership are symptoms that you’re too hooked on control, which can lead to your team not being able to perform at their full potential. You become the bottleneck to them getting more done when you have to direct, decide and determine everything they do. If the job of leadership is to get things done with and through others, a lack of empowerment is a significant barrier to better leadership.

2. Being too nice

Some leaders on the other hand are addicted to harmony and getting along with others. Whilst fitting in and going along are part of what’s required in teamwork and organisational life, leaders also need to be able to pushback, argue, debate, speak candidly and take a stand, even if it creates some heat and discomfort with others. People who have an overriding desire to be liked and accepted produce anaemic and weak leadership. It’s paradoxical really. Whilst we expect people to fit in and comply, and it’s a hurdle requirement to get your first leadership job, we are more likely to admire, respect and wish for leaders who are prepared to challenge the status quo.

3. Protecting yourself

We struggle with inauthentic leadership because we know we are not seeing the real person, the genuine article with all its flaws and shortcomings. A carefully constructed impervious leadership facade that says “I have it all sorted; I have all the answers” is not believable because we know it’s not possible. We all have fears, doubts, insecurities and weaknesses and any attempt to hide them inevitably distances the leader from others, causing them to appear aloof or arrogant. When a leader protects themselves in the way they are saying that they don’t trust us. Who wants to follow a leader that doesn’t trust them?

4. Failure to motivate individually

Leadership is about releasing the energy and commitment of others towards the outcomes or goals that you’ve set. That means connecting their efforts to what motivates them, not what motivates you. If you don’t know a team member hopes, dreams and aspirations, or their fears, anxieties or concerns, you’re powerless to truly mobilise them and move them from where they are, towards where they need to be.

5. Lack of empathy and compassion

For others to trust you and your leadership, they have to believe that you understand how they feel - that you get where they are coming from. That’s why empathetic leaders like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, and Joe Biden in the USA have been preferred over the strongman style of Trump or Bolsanaro in Brazil during the COVID pandemic. Empathetic leaders can still be strong and ask us to do hard and difficult things, but they also are able to acknowledge our struggles, pain and discomfort along the way.

6. Too much or too little heat

Productive disagreement and conflict is a necessary condition for innovation and transformation. Whether its competition and debate of ideas, approaches or ways of doing things, it’s an essential ingredient for us to develop better solutions, plans and answers. A leader who hoses down disagreement too early never lets the transformative effects of that conflictual heat do its work. Likewise, a leader who relies too much on conflict and allows too much heat to be generated can contribute to damaged relationships and outcomes. Finding the Goldilocks zone where the heat is just right is an important leadership skill.

7. Absent attention

How do you feel when someone is with you but not really present, with their attention and awareness is directed elsewhere - checking messages, looking out the window, hurrying you up with impatient body language etc? Not valued? Not respected? Hardly the sort of conditions that encourage you to trust and engage with that person. This is the struggle of the modern world. Some leaders are so busy doing that they struggle with being fully present with others. Learning to be focused, attentive and present with the people they seek to lead is essential.

8. Activating the Amygdala

The part of your brain that is largely responsible for your fight-flight-freeze reflex is the almond sized amygdala. It can quickly hijack your conscious actions and trigger powerful irresistible survival responses if it perceives danger. Some leaders start difficult conversations in ways that are likely to trigger an amygdala hijack, causing the other person to respond with unhelpful emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, etc. This can create a negative spiral in the conversation that can be difficult to recover from. Leaders should use their emotional intelligence to balance candour and directness with sensitivity and consideration when planning how to open a difficult conversation.

9. Telling without asking

Sure, leaders need to guide, explain, share and generally tell, but they also need to ask. Many leaders instead are hooked on talking, with most doing far more telling than listening. I’d estimate the typical tell to ask ratio to be around 3:1, even though most leaders have one mouth yet have two ears. This imbalance explains why their team members of leaders with this pattern show lower engagement, commitment and growth. A tell to ask ratio of around 1:1 promotes better involvement, buy-in and learning.

10. Shallow listening

If you finish talking and your manager says “yeah, I agree with you but….”, you can be pretty sure they haven’t really heard you. As the great management thinker Stephen Covey stated so succinctly “Most people don’t listen to understand. Instead, they listen to respond”. Leaders who are unable to really hear and understand what their team members are saying often struggle to build trust and genuine communication because team members think “What’s the point of me talking if you’re not really listening?! Shallow listening ultimately affects motivation, commitment and engagement, in turn limiting results and performance.


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