10 Biggest Leadership Mistakes

John Hamm, professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University and author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership contends that “not-so-great leaders” can get by during boom years but during recessionary times they unfortunately find themselves way over their heads when it comes to successful leadership qualities. 

“They’re cushioned by a surplus of cash, and their missteps are covered up by the thrill of top-line growth, which hides a multitude of sins.  But when the cloak of prosperity falls away, their mediocrity is ruthlessly exposed.  Real leadership equity is only earned, not bestowed.”

Hamm believes that if an organization is to prosper, despite the economic conditions around it that you must make sure you don’t practice the following 10 deeply destructive mistakes that organizational leaders sometimes commit:

1)  Not being Authentic.  Knowing who you really are and holding true to yourself in the most difficult times is vital for leadership credibility.  Though other people’s feelings are important, it is without a doubt that you must maintain truth as your mantra at all times.

2)  Underestimating the impact of dishonesty.  You can’t be friendly toward people that you frankly think are a purge on all mankind.  You need not be rude but according to Hamm, you need not be politically sensitive either.  People need to know where you stand with them and in the long run they will appreciate the honesty.

3)  Being two-faced and assuming others won’t notice.  In the same approach as being truthful and authentic, it is imperative that Leaders not try to have it both ways.  Granted there are people we must work with that we can’t do a thing about but on the other hand you shouldn’t give the impression that you are their long lost friend.  Hamm beleives that your charade will inevitably be noticed with ramifications way beyond those if you had just played it straight.

4)  Gift Wrapping Bad News.  A Leader always talks positively about the future but must also be forthright in presenting all the news.  More leaders have fallen on their sword by not being fully honest than those who provide the entire picture. 

5)  Never taking a risk.  Life would be very boring if you never took it upon yourself to journey out beyond the comfort zone.  The same can be said for organizations; calculated risks are important for success.  If you don’t periodically take some chances the end result will not be one of growth.  Like any investor, without risk you don’t achieve a bountiful profit.

6)  Letting enthusiasm fizzle.  Leadership entails being a cheer-leader.  A leader must always have an enthusiastic vision for tomorrow and excite the crew for today.  Soldiers will follow to their death a leader who has a purpose, is engaging and is one of them.  It is certainly more difficult to reinvigorate the staff periodically than constantly incorporating the evangelical spirit that’s in you come to the top.

7)  Refusing to deal with the dead wood.  Chronic underperformers spoil it for everybody else.  These people create an environment of resentment and unfortunately bring their home difficulties to the office.  You might be a nicer guy by not confronting the issue immediately but the end-result will be just as tragic.  Face the facts, it is usually them or you and since no one else is looking out for you – you best nip the problem in the bud immediately.

8)  Allowing people to fail elegantly.  There are two modes for organizations under high-stakes pressure.  One is the enormous excitement of winning while the other, less obvious to the untrained eye is the desease of failing elegantly which is the obvious attempt for a failing project or action not to embarass the individual or company.  When people stop believing they can win, some then devote themselves to how to best lose.  Blaming, excuse-making and cutting corners are just a few manifestations of this technique.

9)  Delay, delay, delay.  “Not making a decision is almost always worse than making a bad decision.”  How many times have all of us been in meetings and you feel like yelling to the mountain top that ” you don’t care what the decision is – just make one.”  If you don’t make a decision that problem continues to be there and will probably get worse before it gets better.  Indecision certainly slows down the momentum of the organization.

10)  Underestimating your words and your mood.  “Leadership is a choice.  It is a deep, burning desire to engage with people and rally a community to achieve greatness.  Leadership can be difficult, thankless, frustrating, maddening at times.  It is only the passion of leading on the field – the thrill of looking other human beings in the eyes and seeing their energy, willingness, trust, and commitment – that makes it worthwhile, in a very quiet, private way.” 

Leaders are on the job 24 hours a day and are being observed by all – make sure you don’t disappoint others or more importantly, yourself.   As a Chicago Bears fan its troubles me to quote Green Bay Packer legend coach Vince Lombardi –  but he was right on target when he stated:  “Leaders aren’t born, they are made.  And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.  And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”

We all make mistakes, but successful leaders learn from those mistakes and are determined not to make them again.  The problem with the CEO or manager who is “comfortable” in his current job is that he has an innate aversion to risks and never can admit to a mistake.  Certain environments can create such a self-protective attitude but if you are to succeed as a leader you must “push the envelope” at times – that is the only way to succeed.


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