by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Error - stampSince time immemorial, countless leadership errors have been made and many dire consequences faced. Yet without making mistakes, one cannot learn. This is indeed a paradoxical dilemma for leaders: To err or not to err?

We must first recognize that there are unnecessary mistakes we can spare ourselves from. These mistakes are avoidable if we are well-informed and prepared to learn. While it is impossible to compile an exhaustive list, the following are a selection of 5 errors – not necessarily the worst ones – that commonly befall the average leader, presented in no particular order of priority.

(1)  Forgetting to lead your self

“I am indeed a king because I know how to rule myself.”
                                                                                            ~ Pietro Aretino

During a talk on management and leadership, the speaker who was supposed to be a key figure in his field, inadvertently shared about picking up a few CDs on Petaling Street. [Note: To the uninitiated, Petaling Street sells pirated entertainment media.] Immediately, one could sense that he had lost credibility among the audience. In all likelihood, one of the two following thoughts must have crossed their minds: “Do I want to follow a leader who seems to have no moral compass within himself?” or “How foolish! Could he not have withheld his tongue from sharing such a damning piece of information?”

A leader must be able to exercise good self-governance before he can lead others. He must know himself intimately and have mastery over self. If you cannot lead your own self, who will want you to lead them?

(2)  Forgetting who you are leading

It was Robert Greenleaf who said that “Good leaders must first become good servants”. Therefore if you are called to be a leader, you are the people’s servant, not vice versa. Unfortunately, many leaders forget that the people they lead are not their servants. On the other hand, being a good leader who serves others doesn’t mean that you do everything for your people and make them dependent or beholden to you.

The following vignette amplifies the difference between a good person and a good leader. After dining with a guest, a good person’s guest will think, “What amazing qualities he has!” On the other hand, after having dinner with a good leader, his guest will think, “What amazing qualities I have!”

A good leader inspires others to realize their own potential. Though leadership begins with scrutinizing yourself, the end game is about others – influencing them to reach greater heights. A good leader never forgets how valuable his people are.

(3) Banking too much on rationality

Like it or not, every decision we make is inevitably tied up with our emotions, directly or indirectly because that’s the way humans are wired. Many leaders fail to get their people’s buy-in simply because they use too much logic and too little love. Instead, leaders should connect rather than compel, encourage rather than enforce.

A single dose of compassion is much more effective at motivating others than giving a thousand reasons why someone must do this or that. At other times, a pinch of humour or lightheartedness may be appropriate to break the tension.

“A sense of humour is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”
~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

(4) Letting corporate rules overrule

Rules were made for men, and not men for the rules. Thus the priority is on the person’s well-being first. Here is a case in point:

After completing a demanding project, the project team members who had sacrificed many evenings and weekends were given an extra day off their work. The day agreed upon was a Friday. At the last minute, one team member had to report to work that Friday because of an urgent matter. So she asked the HR department if she could take another day off instead. Their response? No. Because that specific Friday was stated in the form, the matter was set in stone. Period.

When decision makers in the organization don’t know how to exercise discretion, they risk eroding the employees’ morale. In general, rules must be adhered to, but under special circumstances, leaders need to be discerning, empathetic and flexible.

5) Distracted by the latest and the sexiest

Stay focused on basic good old-fashioned leadership values like humility and honesty instead of getting sidetracked by new leadership fads. For instance, trying to conduct leadership training based on the most recent set of buzzwords is going to be a waste of valuable corporate resources if your executives still have attitudes such as “Why should I change?” or “Why should I respect people from that culture?”

It could take just one little misstep to undo your great leadership track record. Therefore, conscientious leaders would do well to pay heed to the potential pitfalls that others have painfully experienced or witnessed and now warn you about.