The biggest mistake a leader can make

MistakesYour biggest mistake is not asking what mistake you’re making
– John C. Maxwell, Leadership Gold

Let me share a revelation: leaders do make mistakes! Yes, they do! The prescient-all-knowing toga that leaders seem to bear usually sends the message that leaders are above making mistakes. But fool yourself not; leaders are qualified to make mistakes like all mortals.

By leaders, we mean any person in a role or position of influence…CEOs, Presidents, Pastors, Entrepreneurs, Managers, etc. The snapshot narrative of this article is: Leaders do make mistakes, and the way out is to acknowledge it, showcase examples of some of such mistakes and then learn from them. Remember that, “Woe is the king that cannot be entreated.” (Bible)

Here is how John C. Maxwell narrated his own version of this story in Leadership Gold: “Recently after I taught a session on conflict, a young man came up to me during the break and said, “I’m going to start my own organization”. “Good for you”, replied John. “Yeah”, the man continued, “I want to build a business ‘the right way’. That way I won’t have to deal with any problems”. “You know”, said John as he was turning to leave, “you’re making the mistake of thinking you won’t make any mistakes.”

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss
Mr. Maxwell continues, “When you’re young and idealistic, you think you can lead better than many of the people who have led others before you. I know that was true for me [John C. Maxwell]. When I got started in my career, I was positive, aggressive, optimistic and totally naïve. I often led by assumption. By that I mean that in my youthful zeal, I usually took for granted that everything was fine. I didn’t look for problems because I didn’t expect to have any. The result? I got blindsided.

Wherever that occurred, I was bewildered. How could such a thing happen? I would wonder. After getting blindsided for the fourth or fifth time, in desperation, I started asking experienced leaders for help. One of those leaders told me something that changed my leadership. He said, “John, the biggest mistake you can make is to not ask what mistake you are making.” That piece of advice set my leadership journey on a new course. It was my introduction to realistic thinking, something I was not accustomed to embracing.

As I examined myself, I learned something:
• I gave little thought to what might go wrong.
• I assumed that the “right way” would be mistake-free.
• I did not acknowledge mistakes I made to myself or others.
• I was not learning from my mistakes.
• I was not helping others by teaching lessons learned from my mistake.
• If I wanted to become a better leader, I would need to change. I would have to stop making the mistake of not asking what mistake I was making.

Let’s leave John C. Maxwell for a moment and sail to Harvard Business School. A few years ago some experts at Imagining the Future of Leadership, a symposium at the Harvard Business School, were investigating what is necessary today to develop leaders.One question they sought to answer was this: “What is the biggest mistake a leader can make?” Below is the transcript from the video they shot:

Putting self-interest ahead of the best interest of the institution or organization
“The most significant mistake so many leaders have made in the last twenty years is putting self-interest ahead of the best interest of the institutions or organizations that they have run. This is the greatest failing of a leader. If you are looking out for your own fame, money, power or glory, that’s wrong.

As Peter Drucker said, leadership is not about those things, it’s about responsibility. And I think it’s a deep responsibility you have to the people you work with, your customers, your shareholders and all those constituencies that you represent. And carrying that responsibility out is the essence of good leadership.”
– Prof. Bill George, Professor, Harvard Business School

Betraying Trust
“The biggest mistake a leader can make is betraying trust. It’s something that is very valid in relationships between leaders and everybody else. If you break that one, none of the rest of it can matter.”
– Evan Wittenberg, Head of Global Leadership Development, Google, Inc.

Being Certain
“The biggest mistake a leader can make, I believe is being certain. Things are constantly changing, things are unpredictable. When we confuse the stability of our mindset with stability of theunderlying phenomenon, we act as if we know. When you think you know, you don’t pay attention any longer. Why bother since you know? Again, since things are always changing, uncertainty should be the rule, and what you want is a leader to learn to exploit the power of uncertainty.”
– Dr. Ellen Langer, Professor, Harvard University

Not living up to their Values
“I think probably not living up to their values is the biggest mistake a leader can make. Leaders who espouse values but don’t deliver them are very rapidly found out and very rapidly turned over. So, I think that’s probably the biggest crime a leader can commit. And I think this one aspect is the reason why there is so much leader churn today.”
– Andrew Pettigrew, Professor, Said Business School, University ofOxford

Being overly enamored with their vision that they lose all capacity for self-doubt
“I think to be so overly enamored with their vision that they lose all capacity for self-doubt is a big mistake. I think the flip side of good leadership, of inspiring leadership, of passionate leadership, is that sometimes you can get caught up in becoming absolutely, completely, single mindedly focused on the pursuit of a purpose, and that moves from being a passion and purpose to becoming an obsession. And at that point, perhaps when you are the most inspired because that becomes your whole life, your world and that is what you are trying to do, or pursuing to do and get others to do, you can also be the most vulnerable because, in fact, you might lose a capacity to look at what are the consequences of what you are trying to do. What other ways might there be? What are the voices that you might be disfranchising in that passionate and relentless pursuit?”
– Gianpiero Petriglieri, Affiliate Professor of Organizational Behavior, INSEAD

Arrogance – personal arrogance and hubris

“From my experience, I will say arrogance – personal arrogance and hubris -and confusing the size of the enterprise, or the success of the enterprise with the individual’s personae. I think that creates greater social distance and power distance which is de-motivating most organizations and people. Secondly, I think it increases the chance of making big mistakes.”
– Carl Sloane, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School

Acting too fast and executing before actually thinking through the issue
“I think the biggest mistake a leader can make is potentially acting too fast and executing before actually thinking through the issue. In Corporate America and even in government, often you find you are drinking from a fire hose of issues that are coming at you and there is very little time to actually step back, evaluate, and think about what you are doing and enter the stage with a new clear vision of where you are going. Most of the times, it very much harnesses the flow of issues and addresses those.

So realistically in my opinion, the best thing a leader can do is to take a step back from the situation with the management team, seek advice, think through it, even if it’s a five minute process and then move back to execution. This stepping back is both good in the short term in solving issues, but also in long term management and digging into strategy for a firm.”
– Jonathan Doochin, Leadership Institute, Harvard College

Being about self and being inauthentic
There are two big mistakes that leaders can make. My own understanding of research and experience with leaders is that followers accept almost any leadership style – little leaders, meek leaders, loud, tall, and short. We are very eclectic; we are very forgiving on leadership – accommodating a whole range of leadership styles as long as two things are true.

One, and we are great at sniffing the first one out – as soon as we get a first little sniff that it’s about the leader instead of something else in the service of something bigger. If my effort is all about him or all about her, that’s the first sniff. That’s the first mistake; it has to be about something larger than yourself. The second major mistake that I see is what is called authentic or not authentic, trying to be something else, being inconsistent, the word integrity means whole, means consistency.

Again, the greatest fear we see from people in work places is which one is coming in today, is this person going to be the one that comes in today and puts her arm around me and says how are you doing today? Or someone that talks behind my back, stabbing me in my back and being the Jack and Hyde. So the two biggest mistakes are not being authentic, consistent and predictable, inconsistent, unpredictable and being all about you and not something bigger than yourself.
– Scott Snook, Associate professor, Harvard Business School.

Not being self-reflective
“I think the biggest mistake a leader can make or maybe the worst is not being self-reflective. So the admired leaders that I have worked with in my own day to day that I have apprenticed myself to and really wanted to follow have been people who are constantly reviewing their own behavior. Who are thinking of how they can develop themselves and thinking about how their behaviors impact other people. So I think unless somebody is willing to hold up a mirror to themselves and have an honest to God conversation about how they are doing, what effect their leadership is having and what effect they have on other people, I don’t think they’ll be effective as leaders. And I think conversely, the people who are the worst leaders are people who just bulldoze forward through life, making mistakes, not really looking back on the past, not learning as they go, and not necessarily being self-aware about how they are affecting the people around them.”
– Daisy Wademan Dowling, Executive Director, Leadership Development, Morgan Stanley

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