Let me ask you… do you know what you should avoid or strive not to do as a leader?
When I’m coaching leaders or leadership teams, I focus a lot on what coachees can do, what they can positively influence, what they can take ownership of, what unique strengths and talents they can grow from, and so on. However, I know it doesn’t serve anyone to focus exclusively on the positive. The flip – and equally important – side is what they should not do – the habits, patterns and limiting beliefs they need to break free of, as well as some common leadership mistakes to avoid in order to bring their best selves to their role.
Before diving in, I’d like to acknowledge that in leadership, learning from mistakes is just as valuable as in any other role. If you feel that you’ve made mistakes in your leadership, or approached things in a way that didn’t honour your humanity or that of the people around you, that’s not the end of the world.
One of my favorite bits of wisdom comes from Fred Kaufman, leadership development advisor for Google, who said that anytime you catch yourself saying, “Oh, sh*t”, try saying, “Oh, fertilizer” instead. One’s just crappy, the other is something to grow from.
When you own something, you can learn from it and grow. We’ll get into that more a little further along.
In this article, we’ll explore:
- What should a good leader avoid?
- The power of owning mistakes in leadership
- The 5 biggest leadership mistakes
- Examples of leaders admitting mistakes
What Should a Good Leader Avoid?
One of the powerful and influential things you can do in a leadership role is to fully embrace your own humanity. When you find ways to do that – openly and actively – it makes it safe for others to do the same.
So, what should you avoid as a leader? Avoid hiding! Avoid all those self-protective behaviours that do nothing but influence others to hide things, put up walls, and keep their knowledge to themselves. You want an open, trusting, collaborative workplace – after all, openness can directly impact your organization’s bottom line – and that has to start with you.
The Power of Owning Mistakes in Leadership
One of the most human things you can do is to embrace – and own – your mistakes as a leader. It’s the ultimate display of vulnerability at work to say, “I made a mistake.” And that’s what makes it so powerful.
In leadership, admitting mistakes sends the message that it’s safe to share just about anything. Employees tend to avoid speaking up at work for many reasons, almost all of which are protective. They don’t want to look bad, risk becoming an outcast, be seen as not a team player, or even risk their job security.
What happens when people are afraid to speak openly is that creativity, collaboration, effective problem solving, employee engagement, employee retention and more all go down.
As a leader, you can combat that by creating a culture of trust and safety. Admitting openly to your own mistakes, and sharing how you’re working towards growing from them, sends a very loud and powerful message that it’s safe for others to do the same.
The 5 Biggest Leadership Mistakes
Now that we know it’s ok (and so, so human) to make mistakes, and we know that a lot of good can come from owning our mistakes, and we know how important it is to avoid hiding our mistakes, let’s dive into some common and significant mistakes leaders can make, and how to correct them.
In my personal and professional life, I aim to live by Don Miguel Ruiz’s, “The Four Agreements”. His four very simple-sounding agreements are not at all easy to practice, but striving to do so has taken me and my business to heights I never could have imagined. I’ve worked these agreements into my coaching and have seen them pay off time and time again for the people I coach. As such, I’ve based these mistakes on those agreements.
1. Not doing your own growth work.
Leaders have a mandate to guide others. When you care about your people, your team, your work, your organization… it’s easy to lose sight of your own growth and development. This can leave you depleted, scrounging for energy, and often coming up short. That isn’t fair to you, or the people around you.
How to correct that mistake:
Make yourself a priority. Self care means doing the work to create a meaningful and fulfilling life for yourself that fuels you up to care for and guide others. That means connecting with others, developing your skills and knowledge, seeking out new experiences, caring for your relationships, doing the inner work to connect with yourself and your inner leader, proactively practicing self-acceptance, and so on. The more you improve, care for, and connect with yourself, the better you can inspire, support and continually take others to higher and higher levels.
2. Telling yourself limiting stories.
Ruiz’s first agreement is to always be impeccable with your word. He refers to “the word” as our power of creation. When you speak, you create images, thoughts and feelings in your mind, and that all goes into creating your world. If you’re telling yourself things like, “I’m just one person. I can shift the whole culture of my organization.” Or, “What I do isn’t going to change the way other people do things.” You’re limiting yourself. You’re embedding yourself with the false belief that you have no real impact. And, whether you’re aware of it or not, this ripples out to the people you lead. It sets a tone of disempowerment.
How to correct that mistake:
Stop telling yourself stories of disempowerment and commit to taking authorship of your life. Anytime you lean into a disempowering story, you’re writing your own story whether you intend to or not. So start being intentional! The one thing you always control is yourself and you are more impactful than you know. Start telling yourself that what you do matters. Tell yourself that how you show up is impactful. Tell yourself that you have the power of influence and that it’s in your control to harness that in positive ways. Tell yourself new stories about what’s possible and then start putting them into action.Your words are your power of creation. The way you speak to yourself creates the way you show up, and that absolutely has an impact on the people you lead.Once you have practice doing this for yourself, start telling yourself better stories about the people around you. If someone’s work quality is slipping, for example, instead of starting a story about how they aren’t good at their job anymore, start a story that embraces their humanity. Tell yourself that you’re seeing someone struggling and that you are uniquely placed to offer support. Lean into curiosity instead of judgment.
3. Taking things personally.
Taking things personally puts you on the defensive. It also lets the people and circumstances around you determine how you show up. That’s a choice you make – to put that power outside yourself. Taking things personally also disrespects the people around you by ignoring the fact that they have vibrant, dynamic, complex lives outside of work. It puts all the focus on you, and what you’re experiencing. This becomes a barrier to connection, when it’s connection that drives strong, effective leadership.
How to correct that mistake:
The truth is, how other people show up is not about you. It’s about what’s going on for them. The way they react, respond, handle stress and so on is all a reflection of where they are at in their journey. When you accept that, fully, you bring power back into yourself. You take blame and judgment off of yourself, and free yourself from any feelings of guilt or resentment. You also honour the humanity of the people around you, and empower yourself to show up for them with curiosity and true leadership. If someone responds to you in an unkind way, you can respond back with curiosity and compassion, instead of hurt and defensiveness, knowing that they’re just reflecting where they’re at.
4. Making assumptions.
You know the old saying about what happens when you assume. When you make assumptions, you close yourself off to learning, and actively blind yourself to possibilities. You put limits on yourself and others, holding everyone back.
How to correct that mistake:
If you assume anything, assume that people want to do their best. But even that is going to mean different things to different people. There is so much to be gained from curiosity and yet, making assumptions can be such an ingrained habit that it’s difficult to break. You can defeat it with mindfulness. Start a mindfulness practice of noticing the types of thoughts you’re having as they come up. Just noticing, no judgment. It could be, “Oh, I’m creating right now,” “Oh, I’m remembering right now,” or “Oh, I’m assuming right now.” When you simply notice it, without judging yourself for it, you can stop the behaviour in its tracks, and gradually replace that old, limiting habit with a much more productive one: curiosity. With curiosity, you ask the questions that need to be asked to get the clarity you need to move forward. No assumptions keeping you quiet and clouding your understanding. If you have a question, you can be pretty sure other people in the room will too. When you choose curiosity over assumptions, everyone benefits.
5. Always expecting your ultimate “best”.
Ruiz’s fourth agreement is to always do your best. So, why am I calling this a leadership mistake? Because so many of us don’t realize that our best is a moving target. It varies depending on what else is going on in your life. And never has that been more apparent than in the last two years of pandemic measures. I’ve seen so many people burn out because they’re expecting themselves to do their pre-pandemic best. It’s great to have high expectations for yourself, but if you consistently hold yourself to unrealistic expectations of what your best is, you’re setting yourself up to fail, and setting a toxic example for the people you lead.
How to correct that mistake:
Develop your inner connection in order to develop your awareness of what your best is in varying circumstances. The best way to do this is to create a consistent morning routine that includes check ins with yourself. How are you feeling, physically and emotionally? What’s going on for you? What are you struggling with? What are you feeling good about? Once you get in touch with this and make it a regular practice to connect within, you can start practicing kindness towards yourself. Absolutely expect yourself to always strive for your best, just with the understanding that your best will be different each day.After that, strive to be open with your team about your experience. Talk about what impacts “your best” and get conversations going about what’s going on for your team members and how it’s impacting their well-being. A great starting point to begin building a culture of open conversations is Covid. Everyone’s best during Covid times is not the same as their pre-Covid best. We can only do our best from where we’re at and with the energy we have. What are the factors impacting people? What’s different? How have all areas of life been affected and how do they influence each other?
I’ve called these 5 things “leadership mistakes”, but I always prefer to think of mistakes as mis-takes. Meaning, you tried something a certain way and it didn’t work out. It was just a mis-take and you can always take another try, another approach, another perspective. To be a good leader for others, you have to first be kind to yourself. That kindness includes accepting your mis-takes as simply human, and nothing to be ashamed of. Own your mis-takes. Own your humanity. You’ll be much better for it, and you’ll be much better for the people you lead as well. There is so much rich fertilizer in our mis-takes. Embrace it!
Examples of Leaders Admitting Mistakes
If you think it’s scary to own your mistakes, you’re right. It is scary. Especially in a world where so many of our social structures and “norms” shun mistakes. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it, or that you’d be alone in owning up to your wonderful and worthy humanness. Here are just a few example of leaders you’d be sharing company with:
- David Neeleman, JetBlue CEO
Back in 2007, JetBlue airlines experienced its “worst operational week” in the company’s history when a major storm caused over a hundred canceled flights and left passengers stranded for hours. Neeleman got in front of the crisis and issued a public apology that included a detailed plan for how they would prevent anything similar from happening again.
- Eric Yuan, Zoom CEO
When Zoom boomed in the early days in the pandemic, a lot of security issues boomed along with it. Not only did Zoom quickly work to address those issues, the company CEO owned his mistakes in a live interview, which went a long way towards rebuilding trust with customers.
- Larry Fink, BlackRock CEO
In a 2019 interview, Fink admitted that his biggest leadership mistake was actually doubting himself! Because he didn’t believe enough in himself and his own idea, he ended up settling for a lesser deal.
- Sheila Marcelo, Care.com CEO
When Sheila Marcelo felt she’d made the wrong decision in firing an employee, she not only owned the mistake, she actively worked to make it right by rehiring the employee and standing up in front of the whole organization to apologize for the mistake.
- Many others!
If you need any more convincing that you can grow from mistakes – especially from admitting your mistakes – here are 12 leaders who learned invaluable lessons through theirs. Need a few more? Here are 6 others!
Mistakes are human. And, as the late Fred Rogers said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” Own your struggles, own your success, own your humanity, and embrace the humanity in the people you lead.
If you would like guidance in owning mistakes for yourself, your team or your organization, I invite you to connect with me.