Common leadership derailers and how to avoid them

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There are a number of common traps that leaders can fall into. It’s all too often that we come across these in our work as executive coaches and leadership development specialists. So, as a gentle reminder of what not to do…and what to remember TO do, here’s six tips to avoid common leadership potholes:

  1. Not having, or communicating, a clear vision – just because it’s obvious to you, it isn’t obvious to everyone else. All leaders need to have a vision for their team, department or organization – this should be exciting, engaging and meaningful. It should help your people see how they can contribute to the overall purpose of the organisation. And it needs to be repeated, by you (and by your management team), regularly. You also need to give feedback to your people on how they’re tracking against achievement of the vision, on a regular basis. People need purpose…it makes them fly.
  2. Trying to be all things to all people/Trying to be someone you’re not – ‘Imposter syndrome’ is definitely a thing. People often feel that they don’t ‘deserve’ to be a leader. Or that they don’t have the skills or knowledge to be one. And that surely someone will knock on their office door any minute and tell them that the game’s up, they’ve been found out, and they need to make way for someone who really knows what they’re doing. But when the knock on the door from the imposter police doesn’t come, anxieties can set in. So to feel more confident in themselves, some leaders will try and play the part of the leader that they think the organization, or the big boss, or society, wants to see. But that’s not a great idea, because people can sense when someone’s not being true to themselves, and they can see what leaders are good at and not so good at. So…be honest about who you are and what you stand for, understand and talk about your strengths and your weaknesses, and get help where you need it.  No-one’s perfect, least of all leaders, so own it, but appreciate your strengths and talents too.
  3. Letting your strengths get carried away – so you’ll have read that ‘what’s got you here won’t necessarily get you there’, which is so true. What we often find though is that leaders often use the same one-tactic strategy as they move through their careers, rather than learning how to nuance their style and behaviour. So, if I find that being persuasive might have helped me early in career – to get that sale, or promotion, or deal on my car even – I’m getting reinforced for that behaviour, so I do it more. As I progress though life though, my context, and the people around me, will probably change. So if I keep using the same persuasive approach that once worked for me, I might find that I’m not getting the same effect. Unfortunately, some leaders will just ‘dial up’ their persuasion until they do get an effect. And if they still don’t, they notch it up a little more. Until, in the end, people are so overwhelmed that they just go along with the leader anyway, not letting the leader know what they really think. Which isn’t what the leader intended and doesn’t make for a great relationship or environment. So it’s time to get agile in using your strengths, so you can pick the right strength to use in the right situation at the right time. Beware, your greatest strengths will get you if you let them.
  4. Not taking care of your risk areas – so, all leaders have some not great bits. Call them what you like, we’ve heard it all pretty much – development areas, development needs, opportunities, whatever you want to call them, they’re things were not great at, but if we ignore them, they might well lead to disaster. So say I’m really poor at planning and detail – I don’t enjoy it, I don’t feel skilled at it, I’m not in any way good at it, and it doesn’t give me any great sense of achievement when I finish a strategy document or complete a contract read-through. So what can I do? Well I need to do something, right, because I need my strategy to be complete and I need my contract to be accurate. Well first, after admitting that I’m not a superhero and that I do have some failings, I could…(a) get some help from people who really love developing a strategy and love the detail and who are outstanding at it, or (b) just knuckle down and get better at doing the things I’m not good at right now. Avoiding this as a derailer comes first from being prepared to be imperfect and to be seen to be imperfect, which is even tougher if you’re still living on imposter alley and pretending your way through every day. Second is doing something about it. Help is out there, but only if you ask.
  5. Not mapping or managing your stakeholders – most leaders aren’t good at ‘politics’. For many leaders, politics is something to avoid, criticise or reject. But all leaders need to know who in their world is important – who’s influential, who has a stake in their success, who’s looking out for them and who may be less positively inclined. Knowing this isn’t enough though. Leaders also need to work out who cares about what and then make sure that they know what every one of these influential people expects from them.  And it’s not always results or doing a great job that stakeholders are looking for, it could be a helpful word at the right time, loaning in an extra pair of hands to their team for a while, a good lunch or a friendly ear. So to avoid falling foul of political forces beyond their control or comprehension, leaders need to make it their business to understand and deliver to the needs of the people in their world who hold the greatest influence. Each one of these folks is a human being with their own complexities, aspirations, strengths and failings. Make it your business to understand them rather than letting politics ‘happen’ to you.
  6. Failing to delegate…properly – there are a lot of ways to get delegation wrong. Here’s some of our faves: (a) not delegating at all – aka the control freak leader who can’t let anyone else really do anything because no one’s really good enough to do it as well as they can, so they end up reworking everyone else’s work and burning out as a result, not to mention getting stuck at the same level for the rest of their career (b) not being clear what you want – aka the creative leader with a sweeping vision of what could be, which they think others will understand and become so impassioned by that providing a few words on what they want will get them a great result. And then becoming frustrated when people just don’t get it and they have to keep asking different people to get involved when in fact they just needed to be a bit clearer on what they actually wanted in the first place. (c) not checking in – aka the abdicative leader, so inappropriately optimistic about the competence of the team that they don’t bother asking them how they’re getting on, or ask to see a draft, or check how they’re tracking against a deadline (hold on, they didn’t even give a deadline). And the team doesn’t mention it, so the non-existent deadline slips by and suddenly, the leader remembers the thing which hasn’t been done and then there are tears.  So delegating properly is a simple process of providing a clear, simple briefing and deadline, checking in on progress regularly and providing feedback along the way to get the quality output you need.

So there you have our top six leadership derailers and what leaders can do to avoid them. If you want to know more about which might be your Achilles’ heel or how to become a stronger leader, take a closer look at our StrengthscopeLeader™ profiler and our Leadership Excellence Programme.

Dr Paul Brewerton, Co-founder and Joint MD, Strengths Partnership Ltd