This is obviously an opinion article. Much has been written on the mistakes of leaders and there are varying opinions on which ones are the most egregious. Why is that? Probably because as leaders, we all make mistakes. And, people who observe leaders all have a different take on which mistakes result in the most negative impact.
Before I share what I believe to be the biggest mistake of a leader, I want to be very clear that I am a big fan of mistakes. So much so that I make them all the time! We make huge progress by trying lots of new and different ideas to see what works. In exploring what DOES work, we have to go through a lot of what DOES NOT work. We learn so much from mistakes. Often the lessons we learn from the mistakes we make are the ones that best stick with us and teach us how to move forward in a better way.
By writing this article I am not looking to create leaders who are risk-averse. Quite the opposite! I want you to keep trying new things and making big decisions, and exploring new opportunities. The biggest mistake we make is not really a thing we do. So please, keep doing and trying and exploring.
If it’s not a thing you do as a leader, what is it? The biggest mistake I see leaders make is mixing up their roles when making decisions. We all fulfill different roles. One of those is probably a company leader. Another might be a spouse or family leader. You may also be a community volunteer and leader. Maybe you have more. Most people have two big categories of business leader and personal-life leader. And sometimes it can be difficult to keep your focus on making decisions appropriate to your role. I call this Decision Drift.
Decision Drift is when you should be wearing your “leader of the company” hat, but you let your “leader of my personal life” hat slip into your decision making. When a leader makes a decision based on what is easiest for them personally, that’s Decision Drift. When a leader makes a decision based on which will cause them the least amount of personal discomfort, that’s Decision Drift. And when a leader makes a decision based on how much they will personally gain, you guessed it, that is Decision Drift. Those decisions have drifted away from what is best for the company.
Now, you might be thinking that this sounds crazy, and that no decent leader would make those kinds of decisions. But the challenge is that it’s easy to convince yourself that you are making decisions for the right reasons. Leaders will talk themselves into Decision Drift, and then they convince themselves that it’s not for personal reasons. For example, if there’s a difficult conversation that needs to happen, and the leader dislikes confrontation – they will convince themselves that it’s best not to have the conversation because it will have a negative impact on the culture. Or, maybe more often, when faced with a decision that will benefit the employees vs one that will benefit the leadership, leaders frequently convince themselves that the option that benefits the leaders is the right one, because they know best.
What are you being paid for?
When you are hired as a company/nonprofit leader, or you are the leader of your own business, your role is to make decisions based on what is best for the company. Period. While it’s challenging to remove your personal interests from those decisions, that is what you’re paid to do. Or, if you are the owner, it’s your commitment to the success of the business and the people who work for you. The people who hired you and the people who work for you are counting on you to make decisions based on what is best for the organization, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t make decisions that benefit you personally. It’s just that those are decisions you make when wearing your “personal life leader” hat. In your personal life – you, your family, and maybe your friends are counting on you to make decisions that are good for you (and your family and friends). That is when you make decisions about what you’re comfortable with, what will be best for your life, and what will preserve and protect you.
Keeping those two decision-making categories separate is imperative to being a good leader. If you need to make a business decision that’s best for the company, but not so good for your workload or mental health, it leads you to needing to make a personal decision. Does the increased workload fit with the demands of your personal life? Is the stress affecting your family and friends? If questions like those are answered with a “yes”, it’s time for you to consider what you need to do personally to adapt to what is best for the company. This could be anything from adding in some self-care to changing careers.
There you have it. The biggest mistake I see leaders make is Decision Drift. They try to avoid having to make challenging decisions in their personal life by making business decisions that are best for them, rather than what’s best for the business. It’s easy to do. It’s better for you. But by doing so, you are not fulfilling your role as the leader of the company. You’re letting down stakeholders and team members. And you’re holding your business back from where it could go and what it could accomplish.
Servant Leader = a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations.
If you look at this definition, you might think that I’m contradicting the concept of Servant Leadership. That’s not the case. I believe very strongly in Servant Leadership, and I think that it is a part of what I’m talking about. With some exceptions, the most valuable asset of most companies is their workforce. A Servant Leader knows this. Part of serving their team members is likely making decisions based on what is best for them. And very often what is best for the staff is also what is best for the company.
Google says. . .
A quick search of the biggest mistakes leaders make will give you several options of lists similar to this one:
Leading from a position of power or ego
Not valuing followers
Failing to grow themselves as leaders
Not providing or receiving feedback
I would argue that each and every one of these mistakes (and the similar ones that land on other lists) can be tied back to Decision Drift. Let me show you:
Micromanaging is often a mask for a leader who doesn’t know how to empower, delegate and build up their staff. Rather than pushing themselves to grow as a leader, they decide to use their time to nitpick their staff.
Leading from a position of power or ego – This comes from a lack of humility and confidence. Power and ego is used to mask personal deficiencies, rather than deciding to do the hard work of growing as a person and a leader.
Not listening – As a leader it takes a lot of confidence and security to be open to the ideas of others. Again, it’s easier to mask insecurities by pretending like you have all the answers, than to work on personal growth.
I could go on with the list above, but my comments would continue down a similar path. Decision Drift comes from a leader’s need to protect themselves, their time, their ego, etc. True leaders know how to separate self-preservation from organizational leadership, and make decisions in the company’s best interest. .
It’s hard to separate business decisions and personal decisions. Outside help can see the issues without the emotion that leaders bring. Email me at email@example.com to schedule a free 30-minute consultation to see how we can help you make better decisions for your company and for you personally.