Leadership qualities are a genuine escalator to success. When people demonstrate a capacity to lead, they don’t just make themselves employable they present themselves as promotable. Leadership is one of the most highly valued and tradable currencies there is.
Notwithstanding, leaders are not perfect. They make mistakes and sometimes even catastrophic mistakes. Ignore the bastardised principle of ‘plausible deniability’, leadership does not provide insultation from either accountability or consequence. With leadership, the size or even frequency of mistake is not necessarily what proves terminal, rather it is the type of mistake that matters.
In this blog, the focus is on the seven uncommon leadership mistakes that can destroy careers. Those that comprise this list serve as a powerful reminder to anyone in leadership and those who aspires to it, that sometimes the biggest barrier to leadership are leaders who get in their own way.
1. The perception of perfection
The leadership journey can be a particularly bruising and battering experience. Yet the measure of fitness to lead is not the absence of blemishes, it is the presence of scars. Those who aspire to leadership roles who seem not have a hair out of place, present as inauthentic. There is a lesson here that over-thinking leadership does not work. Those who are pre-occupied with being on the right side of history, are more likely to find themselves on the wrong side of it. For completeness, leadership must be experienced in all its ugliness as well as its beauty. When a leader is devoid of scars, they don’t just have a questionable history, they have an uncertain future.
2. Setting reasonable expectations
It is dangerous to learn to fly a plane whilst you are also building it. However, as a leader, the ability to do just that could be the making or breaking of your career. Do you remember Covid-19? No-one was ready for the unreasonable expectations that the pandemic would place on leaders to restructure society and re-purpose economies for citizens and consumers. Notwithstanding, that is exactly what was required of those in positions of leadership. There are times when faced with exceptional circumstances, reasonable expectations are completely unreasonable. Therefore, to set such expectations will single you out as unfit for leadership.
3. The obsessive search for a compromise
Surely mastering the art of comprise is a good thing, isn’t it? Diplomacy is a much sought-after skill in de-escalation and averting conflict. The problem is that at a certain point, people want to know exactly what leaders stand for. Sometimes the defining measure of leadership are not the principles that you will live for, they are the ones that you will die for. Yes, compromise is necessary when engaging others and reaching an agreement. However, when core principles are thrown overboard to achieve it, that calls into question leadership integrity. When a leader’s integrity is questioned on one thing, it is unlikely to be trusted on anything.
4. Undeniable sincerity
Sincerity is an endearing quality in leadership. The contrast to sincerity is insincerity and no-one likes that. The problem for leaders is that being sincere in their intentions is valueless if ultimately, they end up being sincerely wrong in their beliefs. Persistently backing someone who is under-performing believing that their performance will eventually improve, can have disastrous consequences if their performance deteriorates. Likewise, a leader who sincerely follows orders that are questionable, will not be absolved of accountability from the disaster that ensues. Ultimately, sincerity that proves to be bad judgement is just bad judgement.
5. Inability to distinguish friendly from friend
A leader should always maintain close and supportive relationships with all those in their orbit. However, in leadership the key to maintaining effective connections is to establish unambiguous boundaries between yourself and them. As a rule of thumb, leaders should always be friendly with those who they are responsible for and accountable to. By contrast, a person in a position of leadership, should never be your friend. When a leader cannot differentiate between being friendly and being friends, their judgement can be compromised and called into question. In a worst-case scenario, they can leave themselves open to exploitation and destroy their career.
6. Relentless effort
Who does not like a hard-working leader? Someone who gives 100% of themselves whenever they are called upon. Unfortunately, effort is one side of a two-sided coin. The other side of that coin is results. There is a clear difference between a leader able to define a relationship between their effort and results and another whose story is about relentless effort without outcomes. Here’s the rub, relentless effort is not the same thing as productive effort. If a leader cannot demonstrate that their effort is being targeted productively, why would anyone entrust them in a more senior role to deliver productivity from others?
7. Martyrdom mentality
For leaders to grow they need to learn and for leaders to learn they need experience. Therefore, part of the responsibility of every leader is to create the space and opportunity for others to grow. Unfortunately, when leaders take on the persona of martyrs, they suck all the oxygen out of the room and unwittingly make it all about themselves. Wasting no time to put oneself forward to do difficult things, without giving others the chance to take on responsibility and be accountable, is just as bad as refusing to accept responsibility and accountability. In the end, martyrs burn themselves out before their time and therefore never truly fulfil their purpose.
As a function, leadership has real capacity to deliver improved organisational outcomes. Therefore, those in leadership roles are the vanguards of organisational influence, empowerment and change. However, as this blog sets out, even with the right motives and best of intentions, the actions of leaders can produce detrimental outcomes for them and others. That is not to discourage anyone from stepping into a leadership role, but rather to offer a note of caution. As the introduction to this blog highlights, the biggest barrier to those in positions of leadership is not the lack of knowledge, it is the abundance of naivety.