Avoid the pitfalls of failed leaders


“I wonder if you can address the topic of leadership flaws. What are some common mistakes or traps that leaders fall into? I’m the HR manager at my company, and we’re exploring the idea of offering some focused leadership development but want to be sure we address the right things. Any suggestions?”


The reader’s organization is absolutely doing the right thing by exploring a commitment to formalizing a leadership development program. From my vantage point, effective organizations are driven by effective leaders and effective leaders are the product of an effective system of leadership development. Leaders in these kinds of organizations do not “fall to the mountaintop,” they “grow to the mountaintop!”

In this column, I will highlight some of the “do’s and don’ts” of effective leadership development programs. Like any other purposeful quest, an effective leadership development is structured and systematic. That creates a guided and adaptive approach as opposed to one that is “hit or miss.” So, if the reader has the resources to do so, here are the kinds of considerations to explore in building a leadership development program:


Who will be responsible for the program? What will be the involvement of top leaders in support of the program? How important is this initiative to the organization? What is the urgency associated with it? How does it relate to the organization’s other strategic priorities?

Identifying participants

Who will participate in the program? How will they be selected? How will they be assessed? A host of assessment options exist, including biographical statements, interviews, performance appraisals, 360-degree surveys, assessment centers, and employment tests.

Provision of developmental programming

What will be the specific methodology to be used with leaders? A variety of options exist, including classroom-based training, mentoring and coaching, individual development plans, off-site workshops and seminars, self-directed reading, rotational work assignments, and college/university courses and degree programs. It is often desirable to stratify the developmental programming and offer different approaches for different levels. Gradations might include aspiring and front-line managers, middle managers, and senior managers and executives.

Tracking results

“What gets measured gets done,” is a powerful performance axiom. With regard to a leadership development program or any training intervention, for that matter, it is important to implement a continuous evaluation process to ensure program effectiveness. Measures for a leadership development program might include program participation rate, feedback from participants/mentors/supervisors, participants’ post-program performance, and post-program participant promotion rate. The findings from the evaluation can be used as a feedback loop to fine-tune the program, moving forward.

The reader wondered about common Achilles’ heels that trip up leaders. Obviously, the best way to get a handle on these issues would be to conduct a needs analysis specific to the participants who will be part of the leadership development program. That way, the program can target the most pressing matters. In general, though, here are some issues that Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, a well-regarded authority on leadership and author of the book, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There,” has documented to be common leadership pitfalls:

  • Winning too much. The need to win at all costs and in all situations – when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s beside the point.
  • Adding too much value. The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
  • Passing judgment. The need to rate others and to impose our standards on them.
  • Making destructive comments. The needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.
  • Starting with “no,” “but,” or “however.” The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly says to everyone, “I’m right, you’re wrong.”
  • Telling the world how smart we are. The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.
  • Speaking when angry. Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
  • Negativity or “Let me explain why that won’t work.’ The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.
  • Withholding information. The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
  • Failing to give proper recognition. The inability to praise and reward.
  • Claiming credit that we don’t deserve. The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.
  • Making excuses.The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
  • Clinging to the past. The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.
  • Playing favorites. Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
  • Refusing to express regret. The inability to take responsibility for our actions; admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
  • Not listening. The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
  • Failing to express gratitude. The most basic form of bad manners.
  • Punishing the messenger. The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.
  • Passing the buck. The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
  • An excessive need to be “me.” Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.

I wish the reader well in this leadership development quest. Leaders are the “architects” (i.e., strategists, orchestrators, and facilitators) of the organization. If they are acting like “bricklayers” (i.e., “doers”), they are probably not adding the value that they need to. The advice in this column is to invest in leaders in the form of leadership development programming so as to invest in the organization and its future success.

Daniel A. Schroeder, Ph.D. is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. (www.OD-Consultants.com). He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or Dan.Schroeder@OD-Consultants.com

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