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Leaders make mistakes. Continually. Beyond their wrong decisions and choosing people, lapses of character and behaviour can derail them.

Let’s look at some missteps to guard against, starting with five reasons consultant David Burkus lists for failing:

  • Stop learning: Many people front-load all of their learning into the first few decades of their life. Once they reach a certain age or level in the organization chart, they stop learning, even while the issues become more complex.
  • Ignore empathy: This can often happen in the first supervisory position when a star employee is promoted to management and assumes the new job is to make sure the people they now lead work the same way they did in their old job. People are all different, and leaders who take the time to understand those differences will be much more effective in assigning responsibilities to their team, coaching and motivating.
  • Lack Integrity: Here Mr. Burkus is highlighting not the gross scandals that capture newspaper headlines, but the small ways leaders lack integrity. “Many leaders enforce one set of standards for certain people on their team, and another set for different people. Or they enforce rules and policies on their team that they themselves don’t adhere to,” he points out on LinkedIn.
  • Play favourites: He stresses that every leader is going to have an in-group and an out-group, given personalities, tenure on the team and other factors. But playing favourites takes that further, bending the rules or lavishing rewards on those in the in-group while ignoring the needs or ideas of the out-group.
  • Don’t prioritize: It’s up to leaders to consider the capacity of their team and establish priorities for maximizing that capacity, particularly as new tasks are added.

Executive leadership coach Lolly Daskal offers four self-defeating habits that are not as immediately obvious as Mr. Burkus’s but are worth the effort to contemplate: Leading with displacement, projection, denial and rationalization.

Leading with displacement is constantly transferring your anger or frustration onto others. “In its most common form, displacement involves feeling anger toward someone who holds power over you, but directing that anger at someone with less power – you’re mad at senior leadership, but take it out on your assistant or your family,” she explains on her blog.

Projection comes when you’re anxious or feeling over your head, and the first instinct is to project your insecurities and failings on others. Common examples are blaming others for your shortcomings or attributing your unacceptable impulses to others.

Denial is a common and highly damaging defence mechanism. “When a challenge becomes too much to handle, those in denial simply shut down reality. Leaders may think they’re protecting themselves and even protecting their people, but in actuality denial makes positive and constructive change impossible. You know you’re in denial when you have to work hard to maintain your version of events in the face of overwhelming evidence pointing in a different direction,” she advises.

She warns that leading with rationalization is most likely to strike nimble thinkers who can easily create a supposedly plausible reason to justify their damaging behaviour. To keep rationalization at bay, regularly consult your moral compass and colleagues, asking them to speak honestly about your leadership.

Executive coach Dan Rockwell says you do the wrong thing for two reasons, ease or ignorance: “Sometimes the wrong thing is easier than the right thing. Other times you’re just ignorant.”

Here are seven mistakes of ease: Not giving feedback; not seeking feedback; postponing tough conversations; ignoring problems; allowing fuzzy accountability; not defining the win; and not setting priorities. “Mistakes of ease sacrifice the future on the altar of the immediate,” he writes on his blog.

And here are the seven mistakes of ignorance he highlights: Confusing busy with getting things done; working hard on the wrong things, such as doing someone’s work for them; hanging on too long, which wears you down; trying harder so that you are pedalling faster in the wrong direction; going it alone, which intensifies your ignorance; waiting for the perfect decision instead of moving the ball forward; and allowing the double standard of noticing the mistakes of others while making exemption for your own.

But it’s not just weaknesses that can defeat you. Leaders also go wrong when they fail to moderate or compensate for their strengths. Confidence is important, for example, but when it becomes egotistical behaviour it can derail you. Consultant Scott Eblin says when he reviews the summary pages of a leader’s 360-degree feedback from colleagues, the highest-rated behaviours often help him to predict where improvement is necessary. “A common pattern is leaders who score really high on behaviours related to driving results often score low on the more relational behaviours like listening and staying open to other points of view,” he writes on his blog.

His message is to be alert to when you need to dial down your strengths. As well, of course, you need the self-reflection to be alert to the weaknesses I’ve shared.


  • The hearings into the Emergencies Act has highlighted an important issue that extends beyond the organizations appearing before the commission: How does an organization know what an organization knows? Related, of course, are how to listen openly and how to weigh different information, particularly when events are changing fast. Instead of lobbing insults at the witnesses, think deeply about your own organization’s knowledge management failings.
  • One way to improve your organization’s managers, executive coach Dan Rockwell says, is when they are newly promoted ask them to think of the best managers they have ever known and list the behaviours that made them successful. Notice if they list skills or character qualities, and discuss that with them.
  • To improve employee referrals, recruiting specialist John Sullivan suggests calling them employee recommendations and advising those making them the critical issue is helping the team rather than a friend get the job. Ask the sponsor to make the recommendation in writing, attesting the person has done exceptional work in the past, will add superior skills and does not present obvious fit issues.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.