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7 Subtle Mistakes Leaders Make

By Tim Elmore | September 15, 2022
7 Subtle Mistakes Leaders Make

Many mistakes are visible and can be remedied quickly. Unfortunately, when leaders commit a faux pas, it often becomes a game of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Folks are hesitant to call attention to it. Everyone hopes that someone else will. So, today, I will. Below are seven subtle yet common mistakes leaders make regularly. I encourage you to be on the lookout for them.

Common Leadership Missteps That Impact Your Team


Wherever two or more people gather, there are politics. The goal is to minimize those politics by addressing problems out in the open. Teams have backroom and water cooler conversations about issues that are “elephants in the room.” Looming, problematic subjects often go unaddressed by supervisors. Why? People tend to be conflict-avoiders. Leaders cannot afford to be conflict-avoiders. This year, we began a series of quarterly team meetings we call, “Elephant in the Room” conversations. We allowed team members to weigh in and suggest issues, then we force-ranked them. It has already been a positive influence, if for no other reason than we demonstrated the courage to talk about them publicly and try to solve them.  


This is a term that comes from the Battle of Asculum, centuries ago. 40,000 Greeks fought 40,000 Romans to a stalemate. Once his army knocked over a wall and won the battle, King Pyrrhus was surveying the countless men, swords, shields and horses he’d lost. When a captain congratulated him on his victory, he responded, “One more such victory, and I shall be lost.” His point was, he won the battle but may have lost more than he won. This happens regularly with leaders and teams, where we win an argument but lose a relationship. Someone may win the debate but lose a sale. Egos intrude. Pride takes over. Emotions supersede reason. Leaders first ask: Why do I want to win and what will I lose? Then, they play the long game. 


Like most organizations, Growing Leaders was forced to pivot and adapt during the pandemic. Some of our adaptations worked, others not so much. When they did produce results, I discovered the worst thing our leadership team could do was to declare “victory” too soon. For example, our switch to a new CRM platform was the right move, but once our leaders declared it done, several department managers pointed out we were “still in process” and not nearly finished. Both sides were right of course. But it would have been more productive for leaders to first acknowledge we were not finished, then share how much progress had been made on the new platform. In doing this, everyone feels understood and heard. It’s better to “under-speak” than to “over-speak” and make people feel they need to right-size your comments.


Two years ago, I began hearing the term, “absentee leaders.” The term referred to leaders who might be physically present, but are passive when it comes to addressing the frustrations of people. Perhaps the leader feels the problem will go away on its own or perhaps they’re afraid to act because it may create new trouble. I believe progress is often trading an old problem for a new one, but the new one is better than the old one. Passivity is rarely the answer when it comes to leadership. Leaders go first. Leaders are initiators. Winston Churchill once said, “I like things to happen, and if they don’t happen, I like to make them happen.” So, speak up if your meetings aren’t valuable, but do it redemptively. You don’t have to insult people by saying the meetings suck. Why not sprinkle aspiration on frustration? Declare an aspiration with a question. For example, you could ask: “How could we make our meetings more engaging?”


Dan Rockwell says, “Your think face is a stink face.” Too often, leaders forget that people are watching them all the time and that their facial expressions can be misread. You’re a genius if you can smile and think deeply at the same time. You probably frown more than you realize. Some of us look like we’re at a funeral when we’re having a good time. Some fear something could go wrong at any moment and they want to be ready. Anticipated unhappiness creates unhappiness. Some leaders keep a “poker face” when they’re listening to a team member. There’s nothing evil about this but remember that a teammate likely misinterprets what you’re thinking, assuming you don’t like their idea. 


Managers usually enter their leadership role humbly, having risen through the ranks or having arrived from outside the organization. They know they need to earn trust. Over time, however, too many drift into a “free agent” mindset. Agency is good; it is the ability to make decisions and the moxie to pull them off. Free agency is an independent spirit where you look out more for yourself than the team. It is essentially pretending to be the Lone Ranger. The truth is, top performers build relationships with people who elevate their game. We need mentors, coaches, advisors, and relationships with those who outshine our achievements. Frankly, we must keep listening to our team, who may be ahead of us in a given category. Derric Johnson says, “If you’re always the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”


Leaders are among the few who can practice a bad habit and no one calls them out on it. Team members certainly won’t, and board members aren’t around enough to see them. Bad habits don’t die. They sneak back after you assume they’re gone. Constant progress is the only thing that defeats old habits. Truth be told, everyone has blind spots, but leaders often keep them. What’s needed is a culture of feedback that goes every direction, not just one way. Solomon Short said, “Half of being smart is knowing what you’re dumb about.” This can foster a culture that will “always make it better.” It’s one of our core values. Sometimes the best idea for improvement comes from an intern. The best idea should always win. The moment you think you’ve arrived, you start dying. Stay open. Stay teachable. 

Looking for more leadership development resources?

Speaker, author, and leadership expert Tim Elmore has devoted his life to developing leaders that add value to others both personally and professionally. As CEO of the non-profit organization Growing Leaders and in other roles of influence, he has been able to train more than 500,000 leaders in hundreds of organizations worldwide. He is also the world’s leading expert on the emerging generation and generational diversity. His new book, A New Kind of Diversity, seeks to close the generational gap and leverage differences among generations as strengths instead of weaknesses – pre-order your copy today.

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