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6 Common Leadership Mistakes

Interviewing leadership and communication experts and role models for my biweekly podcast, the TalentGrow Show, has been such a great experience. I learn new things and reinforce or affirm lessons I already knew (and often teach others). Some themes have emerged within the insights shared by these smart and interesting people, such as common mistakes leaders make. Here are six leadership mistakes my guests have seen in their work and how they suggest we remedy them.

Problem solving and creativity mistakes

Speaker, author, creativity expert and innovation consultant Gregg Fraley, interviewed in episode 6, shared that one of the most common mistakes leaders make in problem solving is that they settle too quickly on the first idea that sounds plausible and run with it. Often, when we don’t generate a large quantity of ideas, we tend to choose a more mediocre idea. Fraley’s advice? Generate a greater number of ideas so you can have a higher likelihood of a breakthrough idea. He discusses how to do this using a more structured process, such as the Creative Problem Solving process—explore your challenge, generate a lot of ideas, pick one, and take it into action. (This discussion begins around minute 8:24.)

Thinking mistakes

In episode 7, Ann Herrmann-Nehdi—a world-renowned author, thought leader, keynote speaker, and researcher whose work specializes in the practical application of neuroscience, learning, and ongoing thinking research—shares a common thinking error she sees many leaders make. According to Herrmann-Nehdi, there’s so much noise and stimulus in a leader’s world that many leaders try to go to the shortest route to a decision and end up making thinking errors because they are looking at the problem too narrowly. Leaders need to consider the diverse perspectives of their team, but often don’t because they think it will take too much time to involve and include them. Herrmann-Nehdi says we often try to shortcut and rely on our own thinking preferences and biases, which is a big mistake. It’s important to look at problems from different angles. She suggests that we analyze the time-wasters that different ways of thinking can create (like miscommunication or overlapping work) and examine together what the team can do to reduce wasted time and become more aligned, move out of functional silos, and become a higher performing team. And, most importantly, we need to step out and stretch our own thinking to meet our team where they are, instead of always expecting our team to adapt to our way. (This discussion begins around minute 14:10.)

Credit hoarding mistakes

When I spoke with communication expert Jill Schiefelbein (episode 8) about how to become a more dynamic communicator, she described a particular example of an unfortunately larger common tendency of leaders not giving credit. A speaker she was listening to described a model that has been around for a long time and with which Schiefelbein was very familiar. The speaker never cited or credited the originators of this idea, which made it seem as if it was her own model, even if not intentionally. Schiefelbein described how you’re always sending a message to others about your character, and when you don’t give credit where credit’s due, not only do you never know who is listening, but it makes people resentful. Sometimes leaders do this because they’re concerned about gaining credibility or being promotable. But in fact, Schiefelbein says that it’s the ones who share credit and build up their team and counterparts who actually get recognized for promotions, not the ones who hoard credit, praise, or recognition. So don’t be a credit hoarder! (This discussion begins around minute 22:09.)

Performance conversation mistakes


In episode 11, Marnie Green and I discussed how to have better performance feedback conversations. Green shared that many leaders, when faced with a performance issue, immediately think they know the truth and make up a whole story in their head, convincing themselves that they know the answer before they speak with the employee involved. This obviously can create a lot of problems and not really help resolve the issue fully (if at all). Green suggests we stop trying to make up what’s going on and actually talk to employees, driving the conversation with questions to really understand their perspective. When we automatically jump to solutions without engaging the employee in the problem-solving process, we’re doomed to fail in multiple ways. Green describes a second big mistake with performance conversations: Leaders often take ownership of fixing the issue. She reminds leaders that it’s not their job as a leader; it is actually the employee’s job to fix their problematic behavior. Many of us want to be fixers, but we must give the ownership back to the employee. As leaders, our job is to guide and support employees to find a solution that will work for them. Then we can have greater ownership and less stress. (This discussion begins around minute 5:43.)

Expert syndrome mistakes

In episode 13, world-renowned executive coach Marcia Reynolds and I talked about leading people into their discomfort zone using the coaching approach. We also discussed some of the troubles leaders face when helping others with their challenges. We think people want to come to us expecting us to just give them the answers so they can simply go do the work, implementing the solution we spoon-fed them. And Reynolds described how many leaders worry that if they don’t give their employees the answers, they’ll judge them as incompetent leaders. But you can’t have all the answers. Instead, Reynolds suggests you take time to be with the person and help them to solve their own problems. It would serve them better to learn to come up with answers on their own. Many times leaders resist this, but if we just give people the answers, we perpetuate a learned helplessness mindset. Your purpose as a leader is to develop your employees. You can’t just develop their skills but must also develop their minds and help them be much more successful for themselves. (This discussion begins around minute 7:45.)

Feedback procrastination mistakes

In episode 14, entrepreneur and author Jonathan B. Smith discussed a common challenge his clients bring up: Leaders often kick the can down the road with their most difficult people, trying to avoid dealing with them. Smith calls this the Ostrich Syndrome. But, he says, you eventually have to deal with the problem. It’s just a matter of time, and usually with more time things get worse, not better. Smith thinks that leaders do this because often they’re afraid of confrontation and they don’t know how to talk to people about their performance. He also thinks that a big culprit is that the performance management process in many organization is highly flawed because it only forces leaders to have performance conversations once a year (and I agree wholeheartedly). He suggests a specific method for having these conversations on a quarterly basis (and I say, that’s the minimum, and we should do them weekly). These talks include discussing values, goals, and progress and ensuring a clear understanding of the person’s role. Then leaders can figure out if people are in the right seat on the bus and can change their role if not. By the time you get to someone’s annual review, no one is surprised, and it makes it a lot easier for everyone to know where they stand. (This discussion begins around minute 18:24.)

There is much more to learn from the podcasts beyond these nuggets. I hope these ideas are helpful for you or those you support and that you are able to avoid falling into some of these common traps. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! 


© 2015 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Halelly Azulay is an author, speaker, facilitator, and leadership development strategist and an expert in leadership, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. She is the author of two books, Employee Development on a Shoestring (ATD Press) and Strength to Strength: How Working from Your Strengths Can Help You Lead a More Fulfilling Life. Her books, workshops and retreats build on her 20+ years of professional experience in communication and leadership development in corporate, government, nonprofit and academic organizations.

Halelly is the president of TalentGrow LLC, a consulting company she founded in 2006 to develop leaders and teams, especially for enterprises experiencing explosive growth or expansion. TalentGrow specializes in people leadership skills, which include communication skills, teambuilding, coaching, and emotional intelligence. TalentGrow works with all organizational levels, including C-level leaders, frontline managers, and individual contributors.

Halelly is a sought after speaker at conferences and meetings and is a contributing author to numerous books, articles and blogs. She was described as a “ Leadership Development Guru” by TD Magazine. Halelly blogs at, publishes a leadership podcast at, and has a popular free weekly subscription newsletter – sign up at
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