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3 Mistakes to Avoid When Developing Leaders

According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report, companies spend almost $31 billion on leadership development programs. However, only 13 percent of executives have confidence in the strength of their leadership pipeline. How is it that companies are investing heavily in developing leaders, yet don’t have confidence in their bench strength?

In providing leadership coaching, training, and consulting to leaders in both private and public sectors since 1994, I’ve seen many shifts in the demands leaders face. Today, it is rare to find leaders who physically sit next to their team members and have clear goals for the next five years. Rather, leaders face an increase in workload, speed, complexity, and ambiguity, while encountering virtual and global connections, an intricate matrix of roles and responsibilities, and goals that are lucky to last six months. 

The typical mid-level leaders that I encounter have authority over some and responsibility over many people and projects. They’re constantly being pulled in different directions while treading water and barely able to set aside time for people development. And of course, leaders at all levels are expected to be strategic, as well as tactical.

Leadership programs often fail to provide both theory and practice that match the real-world complexity and tensions leaders deal with. Through my experience and analyzing future trends, I’ve identified three mistakes that are prevalent in many leadership programs today. I’ll describe them along with three new approaches I now embrace to support the development of today’s—and tomorrow’s—leaders.

Mistake #1: Believing there is a “right” way to lead

Most of the 360 leadership assessments and models include a list of leadership competencies that have been proven yield positive results. There are many positive benefits to assessments, primarily the ability to gain an objective view about how you’re being perceived by others. 

However, the underlying premise for most of these leadership assessments is that there is a single, “right” way of leading.

The assumption is that in order to become an effective leader, you must strive to excel at all of the effective leadership competencies listed in the assessment.  In today’s world, however, the landscape changes day to day, and being able to adapt to the needs of a situation is most important. Instead of valuing one behavior as effective or ineffective, I believe behaviors are neutral. It’s how you leverage and overuse each behavior that determines its effectiveness. 

For example, being an optimistic leader is viewed as a positive leadership trait. And, when leveraged effectively, an optimistic leader may bring positive energy, motivate others through tough times, and focus on future opportunities. However, if you over-focus on being optimistic, you may appear out of touch with reality, may not be taken seriously, or may come across as not genuine. The leadership behavior of being optimistic is neutral. How you execute this behavior (and how it’s perceived by others) will determine your effectiveness as a leader.

Bottom line: Leadership traits are neutral; their effectiveness lies in how you execute them.

Mistake #2: Believing that leadership behaviors are static

Leadership behaviors or competencies are often presented in a laundry list fashion—good traits and bad traits. Every few years a new buzzword is added to the list like “agile,” “adaptable,” or “resilient,” and the list continues to grow, leaving it to new leaders to adopt all of the good traits and throw away the rest.

If only it were that easy. 

What’s missing is the realization that leadership behaviors do not exist in a vacuum. They are dynamic and operate in a larger system that is constantly flowing, whether we are aware of it or not. Dr. Barry Johnson coined the term “Polarity Management” and created a Polarity Map (see illustration) that effectively illustrates the interdependencies between any two behaviors, values, or concepts. In this article, I will map out one type of polarity as an example—collaborative and directive. 

Let’s start in the upper left quadrant. If a leader adopts a collaborative leadership style, they will likely solicit feedback, respect other people’s opinions and co-create a path forward. However, if that leader devotes all their energy to collaboration, they may lose focus and direction (lower left quadrant).

If a team encounters this type of leadership behavior, they would then likely desire a leader who has a clear vision and direction, pushing the leader to adopt a more directive style (upper right). However, if this leader then hyper-focuses on being directive, they may exclude others from decisions resulting in the team feeling micromanaged and disrespected (lower right). 

If the leader recognizes this dynamic, they will not remain stuck in this space but rather recover by reaching back to their original collaborative style and bring people into the conversation (upper left). 

The goal is to leverage the upsides of both behaviors (collaborative and directive) and maintain awareness of when one may be over-emphasized. This is just one example of the interdependencies of behaviors. You can essentially map out any leader behavior using the Polarity Map to see the dynamics and interdependencies.

The point? Behaviors exist in pairs, not in isolation. Collaborative and directive are interdependent of each other and operate in a larger system. Unless a leader can see the interdependencies and value both behaviors, they will only concentrate on one or the other and remain stuck when their strategies no longer work. 

Rather than focusing on behaviors, leaders should focus on the bigger context and recognize how to leverage the benefits of multiple behaviors given the needs of the situation. 


Bottom line: Behaviors are dynamic and interdependent.

Mistake #3: Supposing that effective leaders strive for perfection

In many leadership training programs, there’s often a focus on best practices that have proven successful for past leaders. Typically, a panel of leaders is brought in to share their success stories to ensure the new leaders follow their footsteps (and don’t make the same mistakes). There’s no doubt that this can be helpful, especially when these proven leaders are referring to being successful within their specific organization. 

However, these development programs often and inadvertently create a culture where it’s not OK to fail.

In other words, executives are saying that you, as the leader, now have all the nuggets for success, so now you’re expected to go out there and, well, perform perfectly! 

But what happens when a leader fails? What happens when the situation doesn’t work the way they anticipated or the way others had prepared them for? Executives invest in these hand-picked, high-performing leaders, send them through training, assign coaches, and expect to see a return-on-investment. 

This often backfires, especially in organizations where “failure is not an option.” During my coaching sessions, these high performers often reveal that they feel a lot of pressure not to let anyone down. As a result, they ask fewer questions (for fear of looking ignorant), take less risks (for fear of failure), and are often extremely self-critical. 

Although well-intentioned, many organizations’ leadership programs are creating a culture of leaders who are risk-adverse, compliant, and highly stressed.

There’s a need more than ever for leaders to take risks, be resilient, create innovative solutions, and engage in a calm, confident manner. Rather than emphasizing (and expecting) perfection, it’s more effective to focus on course-correction. Of course, you should still encourage leaders to set high expectations, but also prepare them for when (not if) failure happens. In other words, there’s an inherent understanding that leaders will have setbacks and failures—and leadership programs should be teaching skills around resiliency and recovery rather than a prescribed path to success. 

Bottom line: Effective leaders focus on course-correction, not perfection.

When you provide a flexible training solution, leaders walk away with more awareness and options in handling complexity and ambiguity. There’s less pressure about getting it right and more confidence in being able to adapt to the needs of the situation. So as you develop, implement, or update your leadership programs, analyze them and examine how you can meet the needs of developing leaders for today’s world. 


Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends

Right Management, “Talent Management: Accelerating Business Performance” 

Article sourced and edited by ATD Links Field Editor Halelly Azulay of TalentGrow.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Laura Mendelow, owner of Mendelow Consulting Group (MCG), holds a master’s degree in organization development, is a certified executive coach, a mastery graduate in leveraging polarities and has been studying team and leadership development since 1994. MCG offers workshops, retreats, training, and coaching to enable others to see their worlds more completely. Mendelow believes, “When you ‘get’ people, you get results.”
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