10 Mistakes Every Leader Should Make (and learn from) before They Die

I was driving to work the other day and the morning show hosts were doing

a bit on a list someone created called “10 Mistakes Everyone Should Make Before They Die”. While it was a lame bit, that, along with an email from reader Tim Eyre, gave me the idea for this blog post.

It’s been proven over and over again leadership development is all about experience. We learn from job changes, stretch assignments, other people, and other more formal ways (courses, books, blogs, etc…). It’s those experiences that are the hardest – those “developmental challenges” – that we can learn the most from. Lominger calls it “developmental heat”.

A great way to assess someone during an interview is to ask about mistakes they’ve made. You’re looking for signs of self-awareness, humility, resiliency, and learning agility. The most successful people – those “A players” – can be remarkably candid and insightful about their mistakes and failures. However, the thing that sets them apart from those that just have a history of screwing up is that they always learn from their mistakes. They take a risk – fall down – pick themselves up and dust themselves off – reflect on what they’ve learned – learn new skills and behaviors, and incorporate them into their leadership repertoire.

They don’t point fingers, place blame, or make excuses – they own up and learn how not to do it again. Of course, it helps that they have a nice healthy track record of accomplishments to off-set those occasional mistakes.

I once heard an experienced manager call this “earning your scars”.

OK, so when it comes to leadership mistakes, mistakes are good, right? The more the merrier!

Here’s 10 that every leader should make and learn from:

1. Take too long to fire a problem performer. This is probably the number one regret I hear the most, from seasoned executives to new team leaders. They waited too long to take action on a poor performer. They had their head in the sand in denial, thought they could perform a miracle and save the employee, or were aware of it and just didn’t want to face it.

2. Putting too much emphasis on credentials and experience in a hiring decision and not enough on personality and cultural fit. Been there, done that. It was my very first hiring decision. Candidate A has a Master’s degree and 10 years’ experience. However, former manager warned me about a “little temper problem”. Candidate B had no degree and limited experience – but great relationship building skills and was seen as high potential. I hired A – and it was a disaster. B was later promoted to department manager. Lesson learned.

3. Not having a vision. Without a clear and compelling vision, it’s hard for teams or organizations to have a clear sense of purpose, priority, or mission. It’s just day-to-day, business as usual, and reactive. Too many new leaders overlook “the vision thing”, perhaps because it’s too intangible or misunderstood. It’s also hard to connect the dots of operational problems back to not having a vision.

4. Not managing upwards. A lot of leaders operate under the assumption that “no news is good news”, or “my performance speaks for itself” when it comes to their relationship with their hands-off or busy boss. While the autonomy may be nice, it’s important to keep your manager informed of your team’s accomplishments, and to build a solid relationship that can be leveraged when needed. It’s a bad assumption to assume your boss is aware of your good work and will be an advocate for your function when the going gets tough.

5. Overrelying on a few strengths and not paying attention to development. It’s all too easy to continue to fall back to the same handful of strengths that got you to where you are. However, without continuous development, you’ll soon stop growing and fall behind. The best leaders are always aware of their deficiencies and are always working to learn and get better.

6. Not listening. This one’s often a blind spot for leaders, and sometimes takes a two-by-four across the side of the head to get them to realize it’s a problem. Usually it’s a major screw-up as a result of not paying attention to what people are trying to tell them, some strong 360 data, turnover of key personal, or some kind of other pain that will turn them into a reformed poor listener.

7. Trying to be liked by everyone. Leaders can’t be their employee’s friends, and leading change usually means ruffling someone’s feathers. Being a leader means requires developing a thick skin and being able to take the heat without taking it personally.

8. Not asking for help. Driving around lost for hours because you’ve got too much pride to ask for directions might make a funny beer commercial, but as a leader, it can have disastrous consequences. At a minimum, it’s incredibly annoying when a leader just can’t admit when they don’t know how to do something.

9. Ignoring your peers. Some leaders make the mistake of only paying attention to their boss and employees (looking up and down), but fail to look sideways. The inability to build coalitions will prevent a leader from getting the cooperation and support needed in order to solve cross-functional problems or lead change.

10. Not seeking or being open to feedback. Two of my favorite “Good Things Bosses Believe”, from Bob Sutton: “I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me” and “Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realize it”.

Wow, that list was way too easy to write! I have no idea where they came from……

However, I’ll bet it’s incomplete. What are some other mistakes that every leader needs to make in order to “earn their scars”?

This post is brought to you by JD Edwards services from Syntax.