When my client asked me what I see as mistakes that people make in leadership roles, one example jumped to the fore – ‘Sally’. Observing Sally is like watching a train smash in slow motion. She demonstrates the first two top leadership mistakes. The remaining one comes from examples closer to home.
Mistake 1: I’m right and you’re wrong.
‘Sally’ is an extremely passionate and driven leader with the singular purpose of advocating against injustice. There are two major problems with her focus: the first is that she is so single-minded that she becomes a cyclopse in any debate. No matter what alternative viewpoint is presented, if it doesn’t fit her version of the world it’s just wrong. She even told her team-mate, ‘if you don’t like it, join another group.’
As soon as you say something like that, you ruin any chance of collaborative respectful discussion, miss the opportunity of tapping the collectivegenius, and alienate potential supporters. Your credibility as a leader turns to ash, and a new reputation as a bully jumps in to play.
The second problem with Sally’s approach is that by advocating against injustice, she helps perpetuate it. If you push against anything, you help magnify it – what we resist persists, what we focus on expands. It would be far better to advocate for something. For example, advocate for peace (not against war), advocate for health (not against disease), advocate for prosperity and abundance (not against poverty). All those wars on drugs, poverty, terrorism – all they do is prolong them by keeping attention on what is not wanted, instead of what is wanted.
Mistake 2: Taking your eye off the dashboard.
The dashboard is your key performance measures that show the health of your project, family, bank account, and how you are tracking against your goals. Again, Sally’s brash and arrogant single-minded focus about the righteousness of her purpose skewered her other leadership responsibilities: she made rash decisions without considering the consequences against the bottom-line. She has now launched a marketing campaign that is likely to send her organisation broke within 12-18 months. If she’d been watching the dashboard – her performance measures of cash flow and profitability – she could have seen in advance where the action might lead (down the toilet).
Any choices you make as a leader and as a group have complex repercussions that aren’t linear, but reverberate across different aspects of your project or organisation. If you don’t take a systems approach to strategic planning, you miss projecting the impact of your choices. Watching the dashboard – the trends of your performance measures – shows you whether or not you need to tweak strategies you’ve implemented. Just like the old adage – a butterfly flaps its wings and an earthquake results – is true: everything is connected and affected by our actions. Using a systems thinking approach you can see where your interventions and actions will leverage the best results. Sadly, Sally missed this premise.
Mistake 3: Not giving up soon enough.
What has giving up have to do with leadership? Everything, if you’re running a losing campaign. For me this lesson was hammered home when I was leading a local community-based organisation. I was of the opinion that the organisation was failing in its objective and if we didn’t change the structure and focus of the group, it would simply continue to struggle on, sapping the energy, time, and good-will of its volunteer members. I facilitated a discussion around this issue with the leadership team and many agreed the current situation was unsustainable. However when it came to vote on changing the structure, fear of change prevailed and the group agreed to try harder to maintain the status quo. I found myself out in front with no one behind – my team would not follow.
It was time to quit. But the real lesson was this: I should have quit long before. Why? Not because people disagreed with my ideas, but for a far more elemental reason. If I had done proper due diligence before I agreed to take the leadership role I would have discovered that there was a fundamental clash of vision, values, and purpose between me and the rest of the group. I discovered too late that I was simply in the wrong tribe.