3 Shocking Leadership Mistakes That Even Seasoned Leaders Make
If I say the word “chair” or “table”, most people know what they are. They are constructs that are fairly universal and their form and function are widely understood. We know what a table is, and what it does. Same with a chair.
The word “leadership”, however, is not quite as clear. Leadership is a tricky construct because it isn’t just one thing that everyone understands the same way.
When I ask the question, “What is the single most important function of a leader?” I get a variety of responses:
- To make critical decisions
- To execute plans
- To have a vision and move people toward the vision
- To take calculated risks
- To build a culture
- To build a unified team that goes through the forming, norming, storming and performing stages
- To explore and discover new ideas and concepts
- To promote specific goals and values
All of these functions are important. But in order for a leader to be a leader, one must have people to lead. It is this condition that creates the starting point for our discussion on leaders and the mistakes they make.
What IS the most important role of a leader? Given that leaders need to lead others, let’s agree that a leader’s most important role is to find a way to get the best out of each person on their team. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the most important role of a leader is to build other leaders.
The Most Important Role of Leaders is to Build Other Leaders??????
Hold on a minute!
Why would a leader work hard at building other leaders? What incentive do they have to deliberately build the leadership skills of other individuals who could potentially rise up and push them off their throne?
The answer is simple. Great leaders know that in order to reach significant goals, they cannot do it alone. They MUST surround themselves with other great leaders.
In order to make that happen, many company owners, presidents and senior executives take it upon themselves to coach and mentor their team members in order to extract higher performance and individual contribution.
Unfortunately, while their intentions may be purely positive, they often make critical mistakes in the process.
3 Shocking Leadership Mistakes
Leadership Mistake 1 – Fixing Weakness
As leaders, it’s hard to ignore a problem. When something is off, we are hard-wired to zero in on the problem with the intention of addressing the weakness. Those in leadership roles are often so laser-focused on helping someone overcome their weakness that we miss the opportunities that lie before us.
For example, someone on your team may have weak attention to detail. He is not meticulous in his work output and appears sloppy. The polish and professionalism of your company are at risk. Your approach is to kindly bring this to his attention and ask that he be more careful, suggesting practical strategies like creating a checklist and re-reading his work before submission. Unfortunately, it’s no use – this guy just isn’t wired that way. You end up chronically disappointed in his performance and he ultimately feels like a failure.
The Alternative: Focusing on Strengths
In this same scenario, you realize that asking this particular player to be detail oriented is like asking a frog to fly. It’s futile. Instead, you notice that this particular individual has a strategic brain and brings unprecedented ideas to the table. Rather than putting him in a position to execute on his ideas, you partner him up with someone who is far more detail oriented and who can dot the I’s and cross the T’s. Together they design and deliver excellent results. By focusing on the strengths that people bring to the table, you are able to set your team up for consistent wins.
Leadership Mistake 2 – Feeling Empathy
Leaders have long been told that a critical skill they need to develop is a sense of empathy. Unfortunately, empathy in leadership can be quite risky. (Yes – you heard it here first!)
Let’s take a moment to define empathy. According to Dictionary.com, empathy is defined as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” And the Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
The critical element here is that feeling empathy is like stepping into another person’s shoes to feel what they are feeling. Empathy is a purely emotional experience.
Imagine that you witness a person drowning in a pool. They are in an state of panic, distress and fear. If you apply empathy to this situation, you too would instantly feel panic, distress and fear – which would immediately disable you from helping them. In this case, empathy has you mentally jumping into the pool beside this person and experiencing the emotional state that comes with drowning.
Applying this ideology to a professional setting, a leader who jumps in the pool in the name of empathy to join a struggling teammate is creating a huge risk to themselves and the organization.
The Alternative: Feeling Compassion
Does this mean that a leader should just walk by and let someone drown? Absolutely not! A leader needs to have the compassion to acknowledge that someone is in trouble and be willing to roll up their sleeves, stand firmly by the edge of the pool and pull the victim out. In order for that to happen, the leader needs to be strong, healthy and confident that they can make a difference.
Leadership Mistake 3 – Focusing on Behaviours
Leaders take action – that’s what they are known for. They take initiative and act when others are paralyzed. They have a plan in their minds or on paper (or on a napkin) and they execute it. While this is a huge advantage as an executive or entrepreneur, it’s a huge disadvantage as a coach or mentor. Why? Because the go-to guidance that leaders often give their employees is a list of actions that they should take. “I’ll help you create a plan,” they say. “Here’s what you need to do.”
While this may sound entirely reasonable, this approach makes leaders overlook the key reason that people struggle to reach their goals: their beliefs.
What does that mean? Plans and strategies are accessible and easy to create – the challenge is in the execution. What prevents people from taking the action they know they need to take? Their beliefs about themselves and about the actions that lie before them.
For example, imagine that an executive suggests to one of her team members that in order to be a thought leader, he would be wise to build a keynote presentation and seek out speaking opportunities. Great strategy, if the team member believes that he has it in him to get on stage and speak in front of a large audience. If he does not believe that his speaking skills are sharp enough, or that he has enough experience or subject matter expertise, chances are that he might procrastinate in the execution of this strategy. The end result might lead to frustration, shame and worry about disappointing his leader. Not a great formula for success.
The Alternative: Focusing on Beliefs
Action follows thought. So rather than directing action, great leadership digs underneath the surface of issues to identify beliefs that may be standing in the way of success. This applies to coaching up-and-coming leaders just as well as it applies to strategic decisions.
Let’s go back to the individual who is not readily taking action as a public speaker. Before creating an action plan for him, an effective leader would spend time uncovering and challenging the beliefs that are driving this lack of confidence. Unless this is addressed, even forced action will lead to negative outcomes. The intention here is to line up this individual’s beliefs about himself and his capacity with his personal goals and those of the organization.
From a strategic standpoint, the idea of uncovering the beliefs that lead to various decision-making strategies also has great value. Even at a surface level, the beliefs that a team has about their resources, the competition and their capacity can have a huge impact on the decisions they make.
Great Leaders are Great Coaches
Effective leaders have effective coaching skills. They start by hiring a great coach or finding a great mentor so that they can experience and witness the art and logic of helping others live their greatest lives. And then they become students in the study of human nature and human potential. They acquire coaching skills of their own. They apply what they have learned through experience and study and then they stumble upon the secret of coaching: When they coach someone else, their own lives expand exponentially. It’s truly magical.
Do You Have What it Takes?
When you think about your own leadership skills, how do you rank? Do you feel like you have the skill and ability to really bring out the best in those around you? Do you inherently know how to coach people to reach their highest potential?
Are YOU reaching your highest potential? Would you benefit from working with a phenomenal coach who can teach you the skills to make you exceptional?