The three mistakes that send leaders off the rails

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Leadership is an intense paradox — a rollercoaster of emotions, techniques and styles. A Google search of the word ‘leadership’ provides 7,250,000,000 results in a swift 52 seconds. Leadership styles are analysed, explored and studied to help us in our search for answers, and in the hope of providing a magic formula on best leadership practices.

Leaders often tell me they feel scrutinised, criticised and isolated. Leadership is as challenging as it is rewarding.

The good news is that with all the research and studies available there are some prevailing themes to help us in our leadership journey, guiding us towards what to do more of and what to do less of.

Here are three common mistakes leaders make.

1. Always connected

Samuel* cared for his team. He made sure he was an approachable leader — the type of leader he wished he had when he was just starting out in his career.

“My boss was never there for me,” Samuel explained. “I had to figure everything out for myself, it was hard. I promised myself that when I led a team of people I would always be there for them, I would be an approachable leader.”

True to his word, and grounded in fierce conviction, Samuel answered every email, every call and solved everyone’s problems. He was always connected to his phone, including on evenings, weekends and holidays. He felt misunderstood by his family, who he cared for deeply.

The problem with always being connected was his team became dependent on him and were not able to make decisions without him. This was problematic for all. He became disconnected from himself, his family and the other aspects of his life.

“Being connected is my addiction,” Samuel said, after we unpacked his current leadership approach and the impact it was having.

If, like Samuel, you are convinced always being connected is necessary and important, have the courage to look deeper and see the costs to your team, business and family.

We become more connected when we have boundaries and disconnect.

2. The need to control

Hello, control, my old friend. I’m guessing this is a familiar one for all and a hard habit to break.

We are not talking about healthy levels of control in our lives, but the need to control every aspect and other people, too.

Dr Glenn Croston, author of The Real Story of Risk, has said: “Just like food or water, we can see how important control is to us by seeing how we feel when we lack it.”

The problems flood in when our need for control is inflicted on others. We know the tighter we hold onto something the more we lose, just like when we grip a handful of sand tightly. When we are focused on control we fall into the ‘my way or the highway’ mentality, and a fix, solve and save pattern which is unhelpful for all. We are the only voice in the meeting because everyone has either checked out or do not feel safe enough to speak up. All the ideas that are implemented are ours. We lose so much, while telling ourselves this is the safest and best way forward.

Helga* is a self-confessed control freak. “I have a long list of failed relationships, projects and jobs I didn’t get because I disguised control with being helpful and pulling rank. I cringe each time I remember conversations that started with, ‘let me handle that, I have more experience.’ No one could grow and learn under my leadership and neither could I,” she admitted.

During our work together, it became clear coaching wasn’t the right support mechanism and I referred Helga to a qualified psychologist. Helga shared years later that after taking that leap of faith, her life is now more fulfilling, her relationships are more stable, and she has been promoted twice in the past two years.

Dr Sophie Adams, the clinical director of Orygen, said we can tell when we are being controlling by the reaction and behaviours of others towards us. This includes when people overtly or covertly rebel. This can be direct opposition or agreeing and then doing something else, or just not doing as agreed. Another indicator is when staff leave and their reasons don’t make sense. People who are very controlling can think everyone else is to blame, not accepting that their behaviour and expectations are impacting others’ ability to function.

We are all human, and we all have the best intentions, which are not always apparent or put into practice. What is in our control is to seek out support to help us let go of the need to control every aspect of our lives. This is a worthy investment.

3. Rigid leadership

“Laws, rules, or systems that are rigid cannot be changed or varied, and are therefore considered to be rather severe” is the definition of rigid in the Collins Dictionary. When we are rigid, we have set rules that rob us and others of flexibility and creativity. This creates a devastating ripple effect on others.

When we are focused on a path — our path — we have set our navigation system and are unwilling to reprogram, becoming blind to the obstacles ahead or opportunities for a different journey to enjoy.

We get stuck, creating a legacy of the same. Judgement and criticism thrive here, it’s a fertile ground for blame.

The foundation of this environment is fear.

Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway describes fear as false expectations affecting reality. Maybe it’s facts experienced affecting reality. Who knows.

What we do know is this is a painful way to live and an impossible place from which to lead.

*Names have been changed to respect privacy.

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