Humans make mistakes. And a leader, whose primary responsibility is decision-making, will make more mistakes than others. There’s no shame in that.
The good news is; any error you’ve made, or will make, has already been made by somebody else — myself included.
Below, I discuss common mistakes I’ve seen — most of which I’ve committed — and how to avoid them yourself.
Mistake 1: Assuming rank means authority
If you’re a leader, your employees know that, so there’s no reason to remind them.
Your authority doesn’t come from your title; it comes from your behavior.
What sort of behavior?
This is something touched on by Jim Collins in his seminal book Good to Great.
In defining great leaders who have run exemplary companies, Collins makes this point:
[Great] leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.
Collins’s take on what makes a great leader is also a guide for how to avoid this mistake.
Embrace humility even as you work hard toward an objective.
Make your ambition — no matter how great — about your organization, not about you.
Mistake 2: Holding on to somebody for too long
It’s been said that the sole role of a business leader is to allocate resources and hire the right people. Doing the latter is harder than it seems.
While there are things you can do to increase your chances of hiring the right person, mistakes happen.
The danger is that you’ll compound that first mistake by making a second one: not letting go of the employee that isn’t cutting it.
I haven’t always acted quickly enough on this. In those instances, I’ve wondered why I waited so long when I, ultimately, took action.
In many cases, after firing a particularly caustic employee, I’ve had others literally say to me, “What took so long?” That’s not a good feeling.
Terminating people is hard, but there’s a lot of truth to the adage that parting ways is almost always good for both parties.
To avoid this mistake, listen to other leaders around you; they’ll often be the first to let you know you have a problem. And they will help hold you accountable if you don’t act decisively.
Mistake 3: Focusing on the wrong thing
Leaders, no matter the scope of their responsibility, will have many things coming at them throughout the day, but it’s not all worthy of their time.
More critically, it’s easy to slip into the mode of wanting to spend time on the projects that align with your interests and skills.
Unfortunately, that alignment isn’t necessarily a good gauge of what you should spend your time on.
How do you avoid this mistake?
Spend time clarifying at the organizational level what your priorities are.
Those priorities and initiatives get put into order by importance. This prioritization method helps the entire management team focus on the initiatives that will help us meet our goals.
Mistake 4: Believing all success is because of you
Nobody does it alone. Managers who believe that every success their organization has achieved is solely because of them are not the sort of leader Collins discusses.
Recognizing that success is because of your team is not only right, but it has the added benefit of making those around you more engaged — making you even more successful.
It’s counter-intuitive, but not claiming success for yourself will lead to more future wins.
One way to avoid this mistake is to ensure that you regularly and publicly thank others for their efforts.
At HBS Online, we have regular all-staff meetings where “recognition cards” are read by me in front of the entire team.
Recognition cards are filled out by members of HBS Online, recognizing the great work of their colleagues. Reading them allows me to reflect on those efforts and thank individuals publicly myself.
Mistake 5: Trying to do it all yourself
This one fits closely with the fourth mistake; it’s not possible to do it all yourself, which is why you can’t claim all the credit.
If a manager feels compelled to do everything, two things will happen:
He or she will ultimately fail to execute and
Those that work for the leader will hate their jobs which, in turn, will lead to further failure.
People like to make decisions and carry out tasks themselves. Good leaders recognize this and turn their staff loose.
Avoiding this mistake is a matter of asking yourself every day:
What can I delegate?
Who will do this task better than me?
How can I organize and grow my team to advance the mission of my organization?
Mistake 6: Not admitting when you’re wrong
Everybody makes mistakes, but not everybody admits when they make them.
It’s my belief that great leaders are comfortable doing precisely that — acknowledging mistakes and apologizing to those who get impacted.
No matter what you do, others will know when you messed up.
So, ignoring it won’t make it go away. It’s better to address the error head-on.
The best way to ensure you don’t make this mistake is to practice reviewing at the end of each week decisions you made that were controversial or didn’t lead to an outcome you expected.
Recognizing such instances is the first step toward identifying where you might have been wrong about something. Then, it’s time to suck it up and apologize.
Mistake 7: Thinking of employees as assets, not people
I was once sitting in an airport when a woman approached me with some sort of hand-out.
I clammed up, not wanting to have a conversation with somebody trying to sell something.
Sure enough, she was passing out a pamphlet on finding enlightenment.
During our brief exchange, she swept her arm across the assembled masses and said, “Don’t forget, everybody you see right now has dreams, regrets, struggles, successes, insecurities, worries, sadness, happiness, and loss. There is more to them than what you see.”
She walked away and, truth be told, I was happy to return to the book I was reading. But later, on the plane, I thought more about what she said.
She was right. And as a leader, it can be easy to forget that those on your team have lives beyond what you see at work.
They have homes they return to. They have loved ones, and bills, and worries. They’re stressed by the work they do with you and for you. They’re stressed by the demands placed on them when they’re at home.
Good leaders recognize this and see the humanity in those they lead.
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