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Jim O'Brien

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The top ten leadership mistakes


Jim O'Brien lists a few no-nos that, if you steer clear, should improve your leadership development no end.

How can any business move forward, grow and prosper without leadership? Strong leadership is the backbone of any organisation; without capable leaders to create goals and visions for companies and support strategies to meet goals, even the most fantastic and potentially profitable idea would fall at the first fence, while even well-established companies will flounder very quickly should the wrong man or woman make it to the top.  

Developing leaders to their full potential is one of the greatest challenges facing organisations today. But what makes a good leader? Usually, I like to focus on the positive, but in this case, I think naming the top leadership mistakes that bug people can work well, so here’s my top ten:

  1. Failing to give positive feedback. Not being told when you are doing a good job is demoralising. Everyone deserves a pat on the back when it’s due; how can people know whether they’re working well if they don’t get this? We all need to know how we are doing, to get praise if we are doing it right; and re-direction if we are wandering off the path. It is also a lot easier to give – and receive - re-direction when needed if we have a store of positive feedback in the bank.
  2. Not listening. 81% of people in the workplace have fallen foul of leaders who did not listen to them. Active listening is a critical leadership skill; fail on this point, ignore alternative viewpoints, and you store up problems further down the line.
  3. Not setting SMART goals. Who would set out on a journey not knowing where they were headed? People need to know where they are going, to have aims and objectives. Yet a staggering 76% of us feel our leaders often fail to set clear goals or objectives, so there must be a lot of leaders out there who do not make their aims clear. This undermines leadership effectiveness and trust.
  4. Adopting the wrong leadership style. There is nothing worse than not getting the leadership you need, and working for someone who uses a leadership style inappropriate to the person, task or situation. Most people only use one, maybe two, leadership styles all the time, so while a hands-off leader who naturally gives orders and then lets people get on with their job is a dream leader for someone who knows exactly what they are doing, has all the skills they need to do the job and is happy to go it alone, this same leadership style is a nightmare for someone tackling a brand new, unfamiliar task they’re not feeling too sure about.
  5. Forgetting about training. Failing to train and develop people is a common complaint. Our most recent training survey showed it was the fifth most serious leadership mistake, with 59% of respondents highlighting this as a problem for them. Training doesn’t just make sense from a practical, business development perspective, it shows people you value them and are investing in them.
  6. Getting the communication wrong. Inappropriate use of communication is a real bugbear, be it lack of communication, over-communication, or crazy communication such as anger, blaming, outbursts, or even too much humour. Failing to communicate the individual, team, or organisational vision in a meaningful way, and assuming everyone should intuitively understand the direction of a company, is another big mistake.
  7. Too much or too little supervision. Under- or over-supervision isn’t just painful for the recipient, it is lazy leadership. People need either to be trusted to get on with the job themselves if they can get on with it, or supported practically, and/or with coaching, if they need help.
  8. Neglecting your skills. Good leaders are usually made, not born. If you are in a position of leadership, you will hopefully be there because you have already demonstrated leadership qualities but, sadly, this is not always the case. Address any lack of key management skills such as problem solving, decision making and consensus building as soon as you identify them. Failings in these areas tell direct reports you are an 'ineffective leader.'
  9. Disregarding the need to support your people in the right way. Not supporting or believing in people is a sure way to indirectly show them the door, especially if you know they are going through stressful times. Micro-managing peak performers is equally dangerous and annoying; support must be appropriate to an individual’s specific needs.
  10. Ignoring accountability. Not holding employees accountable for achieving agreed-upon goals and behaviour is a critical mistake. At worst, it shows weakness and encourages a 'well they'll never know...' attitude. Leaders who don’t hold themselves accountable also send mixed messages to direct reports; this kind of ‘one rule for you, one for me’ behaviour will foster animosity and damage trust.

So that’s my top ten list of leadership mistakes. If you want to screw up at work today, choose any one of them to put into action! These are not mistakes any leader should ever make and are seriously bad news. They lead to low organisational vitality, high staff turnover and poor customer loyalty. The good news though is that shaping up your leadership skills isn’t rocket science; good leadership can be taught, learnt, and practised.

Make becoming a better leader your priority today.

Jim O’Brien is managing director, EMEA of The Ken Blanchard Companies


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