The 5 biggest mistakes leaders make & How to avoid them

6 minutes reading time

An organization is only as good as its leaders. Unfortunately, great leaders are among the scarcest resources on the planet. And there are many mistakes leaders make.

One of the reasons is that we still don’t have a clear and simple formula for how one can become a great leader. More likely we could say that leadership is like beauty: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Despite the lack of a simple leadership formula, research has been giving us more and more clues on how great leaders think, behave and what kind of competences they possess; and, equally important, what kind of mistakes they avoid.

In this article, we’ll look at the 5 biggest mistakes leaders make, especially young leaders who take a leadership position for the first time.

The 5 biggest mistakes leaders make

1. The first step to avoid the biggest mistakes leaders make is to overthrow the Peter principle

The Peter principle states that people in hierarchies tend to get promoted until they reach their “level of incompetence”.

To explain further, employees are usually promoted based on their success in previous positions that required a different set of skills. Sooner or later, promotions cause the employee to reach the level at which they are no longer competent. The Peter principle started as management satire, but today we have more and more research that supports the principle.

It’s quite evident why. Great experts don’t make great leaders by default. At the same time, great experts are the ones who usually get promoted most frequently (often for a higher paycheck, not because of their interest in the leadership role).

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as promoted experts are willing to make the transition to the leadership role. A leadership role means dealing with people. Most of the working hours. Not excelling at technical skills. And dealing with people is hard.

Becoming an expert in something like rocket science is hard. But managing people is still harder.

The formula for overcoming the Peter principle and for becoming or staying a great leader is quite simple. You have to always stay humble, never stop learning, and make sure that 360-degree feedback is set in place. The latter can regularly illuminate a leader’s blind spots.

It’s usually quite hurtful to hear that you suck at something, but if you perform out of a blind spot, there’s no way you can improve yourself. On the other hand, if you have no clue where you underdeliver as a leader, you might live in a fantasy where you see yourself as a great leader, when in reality the Peter principle is messing with your perception.

2. Are you familiar with the clues what really makes a great leader?

If you want to become a great leader, you need to have as clear a picture as possible of what being a great leader means. Luckily, as mentioned before, there’s more and more valuable research available on how great leaders behave and what they do on a daily basis (as we have more research about beauty).

One such research project is Project Oxygen, initiated by Google, which started with the crazy goal of proving that the quality of management doesn’t really have a big impact on the performance of a team.

They hired a bunch of statisticians who analysed an enormous quantity of data related to Google’s management performance. The data source were interviews, performance reviews, surveys and other kind of employee feedback.

However, instead of proving their crazy hypothesis, they discovered the contrary – the quality of the management has a very big impact on the company’s performance. Even more importantly, they also found a few clues what the greatest leaders in Google do differently.

Here are the eight behavioural traits that make a great leader. Great leaders:

  1. Regularly coach their teammates.
  2. Empower their team and don’t micromanage.
  3. Express interest in team members’ professional and personal well-being.
  4. Are productive and result oriented.
  5. Are extremely good communicators, meaning they listen and share information.
  6. Help their teammates with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  8. Possess enough technical skills to advise the team.

So, if you want to become a great leader, ask yourself:

  • Do you have a vision for your team?
  • Are you emotionally invested in your teammates and show interest in their business and personal development?
  • Do you make sure all the teammates deliver, including yourself (for example, based on the OKR framework)?
  • Do you have regular coaching sessions with your tram and you don’t micromanage?
  • And so on.

3. Naïve and soft – not the qualities of a great leader

Almost every leader faces the dilemma of how tough (or soft) they should be with the people they lead. So, should you be kind or a “ruthless leader”?

The answer lies somewhere in between, as usual. The best advice on this dilemma is described in the book The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins It goes like this:

  • The best leaders are demanding, but they can be satisfied.
  • They are approachable, but not familiar.
  • Determined, but reasonable.
  • Focused, but flexible.
  • They provide results, but don’t cause too big of a shock.
  • And last but not least, they are prepared to make difficult decisions that are also humane.

As a great leader, you have to challenge people directly, but you also have to care personally. You must make sure your demands are clear, results delivered, but you also provide support at the same time.

You have to be tough, but fair and emotionally invested in people. And even when you have to be tough, there’s no reason not to stay kind.

4. Keep your emotions in check

If you want to become a great leader, you must first know how to lead yourself. And a big portion of leading yourself lies in managing your emotions, which is not an easy job.

Here’s why: as a leader, you constantly have to deal with problems, issues and people who are highly unpredictable. In other words, being a leader means you’re in a constant state of crisis, dealing with numerous challenges and issues. That’s emotionally hard and internally wired in our biology.

Every crisis, problem, threat or misbehavior throws a person into one of the 4F modes – fight, flight, freeze, fawn. Consequently, after dealing with crisis on a daily basis, many leaders start living in one of the 4F modes. Their leadership style becomes one of the 4F toxic emotional states. You’ve probably seen them many times:

  • Fight mode – the aggressive, authoritarian leader, feared by people.
  • Flight mode – the anxious leader, constantly creating crises and drowning in work.
  • Freeze mode – the leader who buries their head in the sand, is completely passive and numb.
  • Fawn mode – the leader who plays politics, tries to please everyone, but pleases no one.

As a leader you have to learn when you are in the 4F mode and how to manage it. A good diet, regular exercise, slow deep breathing, rich personal relationships, meditation, regular expression of emotions in a constructive way etc. are all tools for dealing with the 4F response.

As a leader, you have to practice emotional resilience and be extremely careful that you don’t get trapped in the emotional 4F mode. Never, ever.

5. Choose the topics very carefully when talking to your boss

The last mistake concerns young leaders especially. A great leader doesn’t build extraordinary relationships only with the team, but also with their superiors, especially with their direct superior – the boss.

It might not seem so obvious, but one can learn a lot about leadership by letting himself or herself be led properly. Being led properly is not a passive, but an active state. It starts with knowing how to communicate and building a great rapport with the boss by choosing the right discussion topics.

These are the things you shouldn’t do or say when building a rapport with the boss. Don’t:

  • Avoid or be scared of the boss.
  • Make excuses for not delivering the results.
  • Go to the boss only with problems and issues.
  • Try to change the boss and do accept them as they are.
  • Gossip about the other co-workers or blame them.
  • Emphasise the past or what is wrong with the company (without providing solutions).

It takes a lot of effort not to choose the listed toxic communication topics. Because we are all inclined towards complaining, blaming, gossiping and whining.

Nevertheless, toxic topics only brings more stress into an already stressful business environment and deteriorate relationships. Choosing the right topics when talking to the boss (and other stakeholders for that matter) does miracles.

Examples of the right topics between the boss and the team are:

  • Style of collaboration and communication
  • Delivery, goals, KPIs and OKRs
  • New creative and performance ideas
  • Problem diagnosis and potential solutions
  • How and where you can bring even more value to the company
  • Your personal development, progress and life-long learning
  • Expression of personal interest in another person

When you learn to choose the right topics carefully in every single business conversation, with your superiors or subordinates, and when you encourage the people you lead to do the same, you definitely make a big step towards becoming a respectable leader.

At the end of the day, leadership is about relationships and relationships are built with proper communication.

This article was published in the RETRO Magazine (vol 22), published by Alumni MBA Radovljica.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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