One of the best things about starting my career in a big organization like the U.S. Navy was the opportunity it afforded to watch many different kinds of leaders in action. As I shifted from one assignment to another – learning how to fly planes, navigate ships and create strategic plans – I’d closely observe the behaviors of both my superiors and peers, wanting to emulate their best qualities.
Frequently, they fell into two groups – those who talked about how much they had to do and those who actually got things done.
Some leaders constantly walked around with big checklists they never seemed to complete. That’s because, as the day went on, they reacted to events by putting more things on the list. But they never really prioritized their tasks. So the days would often end with a few things checked off and twice as many new ones added – and the most important items getting buried deeper on the list!
These leaders had fallen into the “I’m so busy!” trap – the classic leadership mistake of confusing busyness with value. I’ll confess to being prone to it as well. Busyness is the cocaine of today’s knowledge workers. We get addicted to it when we react to what is right in front of us on our tablets, screens and other mobile devices, or when we attend endless meetings that result in no action.
Let’s be honest: most of us believe being busy is a badge of honor. We are proud to tell everyone just how incredibly busy we are. Unfortunately, we are most likely not delivering results in this state of mind because we’re not being strategic.
We can learn from those other Naval officers I encountered, the ones who spent less time with endless checklists and more on a handful of priorities that really mattered. I learned from them that starting each day with a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish focuses you on what’s most important, versus the mundane and seemingly urgent e-mails, meetings and other brushfires.
It’s ok to be busy. That’s reality in the 21st century. But it’s not ok to be busy without a larger plan that keeps you on course and a commitment to giving yourself adequate time to focus and reflect. Take time periodically to ask yourself, “What are the three things I want to accomplish today, this week or this month? Why? And how can I make sure they get done?”
That’s a good start toward avoiding leadership Mistake No. 2: “I’m not responsible.”
We’re all sadly familiar by now with the unfortunate phrase “Mistakes were made.” These words are regularly trotted out by politicians, business executives and coaches when things go wrong but nobody wants to take the blame. “Mistakes were made” even has its own Wikipedia entry, which traces the phrase back to the scandal-riddled administration of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in the 1870s.
Leaders who take credit for successes but pass the buck for failures are not in control or engaged. And employees and clients don’t buy their behavior. We instinctively know they are “renters” – self-serving individuals who are focused solely on their own welfare. What we want instead are “owners” – leaders who take responsibility for their team’s failures and their own shortcomings. They send important messages to their colleagues and stakeholders by signaling their awareness of problems and their commitment to doing everything possible to get them fixed. All it takes to be an owner is to act like one.
If the first two leadership mistakes involve our own leadership styles, the other two classic errors are grounded in how we interact with the women and men we’re privileged to lead. That brings us to leadership Mistake No. 3: “I can save this person!”
During my years in higher education, we had an administrator that I liked quite a bit personally but who wasn’t leading his own people well. This became a chronic issue that deeply affected the morale of his team, and I was determined to fix it with one-on-one coaching. In the end, I invested too much time trying to help this individual make changes that he didn’t really want to make. By the time I finally demoted him, it was obvious that he didn’t have the emotional intelligence needed for a senior role – and never would. I was more than fair with him; I also should have been much more decisive in realizing the limits of my influence and focusing on his colleagues who were performing at a high level and truly deserved more of my time.
Conversely, when interacting with direct reports, there’s the danger of miring ourselves in Mistake No. 4: “Here’s what you’re doing wrong.” Here, instead of looking too hard for positives in a losing situation, we take a winning situation and interject problems into it. Yes, all of our employees, even the most talented ones, will have their weaknesses. Like us, they are human. But we need to be careful not to get so obsessed with repairing their shortcomings that we take their strengths for granted.
In my experience, we’ll get more results from our co-workers by helping them maximize their strengths, rather than trying to lift them from weak to average in a different area. This isn’t to say we should ignore weaknesses altogether because, sometimes, they can derail careers. But, in conversations with our talent, it’s best to lead with specific examples of what they’re doing well and why it’s appreciated. This will build their confidence and their trust in us as leaders, making it much easier to raise legitimate issues and work together on improving them.
The leadership mistakes explored here are classic because they’re made all the time. Certainly, I’ve fallen into each of these traps. But by naming and anticipating them, we have a much greater chance of making the right moves next time.
This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a Linkedin Influencer. Click to view all his columns and sign up to receive future posts.