The most common mistakes leaders make


The most common mistakes leaders make and how to avoid them. A leader’s first task is to set a clear and compelling purpose that their team is focused on and which drives the culture. The biggest mistake for a leader is not articulating this purpose, leaving people unclear about what they are trying to achieve and why. 

Is the aim to make cars, or to make electric cars, or to make the most sustainable form of transport? Clarity of the purpose is essential to focus the work of a group. 

If people lose sight of that purpose, the process takes over. The routine of meetings and procedures begins to dominate and slows things down. This is especially true when organisations become larger.

The less closely connected people are to the leader, the easier it is for them to lose sight of the purpose. I’ve seen entrepreneurs come across this speed bump where their charisma and connection become less effective, because there are suddenly too many people.

Once you get beyond 25 to 30 people, it’s harder to connect them to the purpose. You get poor communication because there are more layers of management. It stops being a dynamic group of people sharing ideas and getting excited about things.

As a leader, you don’t have to be the cleverest in the team or the most dominant. The best leaders are just members of the teams they lead.

Gather the right people: bright people who are excited by the clear and compelling purpose. And once you have the right people, give them as much freedom as you dare… and then a little more.

This brings me to another common mistake that leaders make: getting in the way. Technology and expectation create an approach to leadership where leaders feel the need to be in every loop and control every detail – because they can. 

Leaders are overloaded with unrefined information, so they lose sight of what’s important. Working in this style leads to unfocused busyness, with leaders feeling obliged to attend every meeting, check every email and show a choking grasp of detail. 

This level of connection and control is seductive, and toxic. It makes us less happy, less resilient and less productive.

One of the most important traits of the effective leader is having the confidence, trust and strength to stay out of the detail. To step back and create the time and space to think and plan –giving others the authority and freedom to think and decide. 

I asked the boss of a large school recently, “What would happen if you didn’t come to work tomorrow?” After a pause, he answered “Nothing.” Then I asked, what if he didn’t come in for two days? He smiled and said, “Probably nothing.” I asked him to expand. He said that his team knew what they were doing, and when he thought about it, they would actually quite like him not being around and bothering them.

It’s quite a relief to understand that things would run perfectly well without us. It’s tempting to try to control things we don’t need to control. But it wastes so much energy. Most people work better without too much control. Control casts a shadow where nothing grows. Once they’re clear about what the objective is, generally the more freedom people are given, the more energised and creative they will be.

To cast no shadow and allow things to thrive, we have to direct less. Speak less. Decide less. This will mean being in fewer loops, being copied in less, and having fewer meetings. Even describing that environment brings my heartrate down.

Resisting this approach can be linked to another common mistake. Some leaders want to be seen to be able to answer every question. Their insecurity means they feel the need to justify their position by showing God-like intelligence and knowledge. 

In practice, this results in the leader slowing decision-making by getting bogged down in routine tasks that stop them even thinking about what the next big move is. I’ve coached leaders at leading universities, pharmaceutical companies, import/export businesses – a huge range of organisations.

In all of them, staff just want their leaders to lead. They’re not watching to see whether they’re putting in ridiculous hours. What they want is clear direction.

People will follow a leader who is calm and kind and makes them feel safe. But leadership is often confused with dominance or manipulation; leading by fear or confusion, losing your temper and blaming and belittling others. 

I have worked for a few leaders who lack self-knowledge or self-control. I never enjoyed the experience.

Such leaders generate a form of turbulence that makes others feel unsafe. Uncontrolled emotions will sometimes lead to outbursts that leave people hurt.

These behaviours are often driven by fear or undefined negative emotions. Such leaders will often be very thick-skinned, and unaware of the effect their behaviour has on others. Effective leaders know themselves well and work hard to address their weaknesses.

If people are prone to anger, leadership coaching can help them realise this and suggest ways of dealing with it. These could include slowing breathing and taking time and space to think.

Finally, leaders who abuse their position to look after themselves do not inspire loyalty. Effective leaders consider themselves just another team member. Leaders aren’t special and shouldn’t consider themselves special. In effective leadership, the focus is outwards, on the objective.

During the early part of my 20 years in the British Army I trained at Sandhurst military academy, and I later trained officers there. When I was an officer cadet at Sandhurst, we were taught to check our soldiers’ feet after long marches for blisters and injuries.

Most leaders will be glad that they don’t have to check anyone’s feet! But they can care for their team by such things as being generous with pay and recognising that team members have responsibilities away from work. That’s the right thing to do, and they’re likely to respond well.

If you have a leader who uses their position to benefit themselves above their team, that’s toxic leadership. People will leave. A team’s energy will be expended on internal conflict and friction.

There’ll be a lack of creativity and trust. People will back-stab and jockey for position. That kind of leader has an impact, but not one that helps the organisation.


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