7 Major Leadership Mistakes You’re Making Right Now

by Alli Polin on September 19, 2017

Once upon a time, I was an HR consultant who was regularly invited into organizations to conduct 1×1 interviews with their employees. We’d talk about what was working, what wasn’t, and their suggestions for the future. Ultimately, I’d compile those results into a report for the senior leadership team. 

Every report and debrief discussion had a Start-Stop-Continue section. Where do you think most leaders lingered the longest? Things they could Start doing to make immediate positive improvements were interesting, and most of them took the time to skim the Continue section. However, it was the Stop that gave them the most heartburn. 

Often, they’d get defensive and tell me why the feedback was off base. Instead of taking it like a knife in the heart, I encouraged them to see it from the other side. What if this is what people see, feel and experience even if it’s not what they, the leaders, intended? Then what?

I also acknowledged that they brought me in not because they wanted accolades but because they wanted to improve as a leadership team and make meaningful, positive changes for team success and to create a great place to work. 

Here are seven leadership mistakes that came up over and over in organization after organization. Ask yourself, are you doing any of these things? Even better, ask your team.

7 Common Leadership Mistakes to Avoid… Are You?

Waiting too long to help

It’s important to let people figure things out without micromanaging their efforts. Still, it’s one thing to let someone struggle and another to let them sink. It can be a fine line, but the best leaders jumped in and asked “How Can I Help?” before things became critical. 

Speaking for the team

The higher up you are in the organization, the further you are from the front line. Instead of inviting managers, directors or others into meetings to represent their work and accurately discuss their challenges or solutions, some leaders like to be the only one to speak for the team. Is this you?

Doing it all – Declining help

We all know someone who thinks they’re the only one who can get things right. They have an exasperated look on their face when they tell you that it will just take too much time to get someone else up to speed. They sleep little, have high stress and are barely treading water. Not a strong foundation for strong leadership, is it?

Caring about image more than doing what’s right

There are people who worry more about how they’ll look than the impact they’ll make. It’s easy to go astray when image guides decision-making and not values. Here’s the deal, when you do the right thing, you do more than look good, you do good. 

Never moving beyond their tiny inner circle

Most leaders have trusted advisors who are critical to their success. However, there are also inner circles of colleagues and direct reports who have the most say, get the most interesting work and are in the know while everyone else is left out in the cold. A closed-door inner circle brings resentment instead of a culture where everyone is part of creating the future. 

Jumping on mistakes

Yelling, demeaning and condescending… three things that don’t belong in any workplace were all too common. Successes passed by without fanfare and every mistake shouted through the nearest megaphone. No feedback loop, no coaching, the teams were walking on eggshells, never taking big risks for fear that their mistakes would take center stage. 

Standing apart

Leadership isn’t about entitlement or being better than the people who work for you. Often, when people described leaders who were standing apart, they were described as aloof, unaware and unsympathetic. They were above the team, not a part of it; swooping in to fix and then gone once again.


Not every individual leader in every organization was the culprit of all seven leadership mistakes. However, more often than not, everyone’s eye’s were open to the collective impact of the leadership team. After I delivered my findings and left the building, I’m sure some leaders threw the report in the trash and others used it as a springboard for change. 

Change starts with one person… where do you need to start? 

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ September 19, 2017 at 8:17 am

Great list Alli. They are all debilitating mistakes.

I would definitely highlight the “jumping on mistakes” mistake. It:
-Creates a culture of blame
-Kills engagement, innovation, creativity, and morale
-Gives birth to the disease of perfectionism
-Show the leader to lack emotional intelligence making it OK not to show empathy

Wonderful post. Will share for sure!

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™


Alli Polin September 26, 2017 at 12:19 am


Well said! Jumping in on mistakes doesn’t fix them but leaves far worse problems in their wake.

Thanks for your addition!



Brian Smith September 19, 2017 at 8:59 am

Reminds me of my 360 feedback reports where the staff got to rate me – the general manager and my management team. 360 should be looked at as being positive, but most take it as a negative. I think 3 great questions to ask are – What should we keep doing, start doing and stop doing. Ask the questions and don’t be afraid of the answers. Use them to build a better team.


Alli Polin September 26, 2017 at 12:20 am

I can remember when I received my first 360… it’s naturally the first place we all flip in the report. Stop – start – continue is a powerful exercise and once leaders and leadership teams should undertake on a regular basis.

Thanks, Brian!



Terri Klass September 19, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Love all your points, Alli! I have worked with teams that seem to always give the work to the same people all the time- just like your “Never moving beyond your tiny little circle.” I have had team members feel they are never given the best assignments because others are favored and chosen to do the work instead.

When we lead we recognize that each individual on the team has strengths and that means using those gifts to the fullest by giving them work that complements their expertise.

Great post Alli and will share with my networks today!


Alli Polin September 26, 2017 at 12:22 am


You definitely describe somewhere I’d want to work – where gifts are recognized and our talents are put to good use. I’ve also found that sometimes leaders are oblivious to their small circle that gets the best work and has the most influence. They need to be aware to make the change.




Built For Teams September 19, 2017 at 2:52 pm

My pet peeve mistake is having a leader who cares more about image than in doing what’s right. I’ve had managers who’ve lied to save themselves trouble and it always frustrated me. Personally, I think I might fall into the standing apart mistake since I can be introverted a lot of the time. But over the years, I’ve had people comment that it does come across as impersonal and uncaring.


Alli Polin September 26, 2017 at 12:24 am

I’m with you on image over doing what’s right. It’s incredibly frustrating to be thrown under the bus because someone else is worried about how they look.

Also, appreciate your insight on standing apart and being introverted. I too am more on the introverted end of the spectrum and you’ve opened my eyes to how that may have impacted my teams.




John Bennett September 19, 2017 at 9:16 pm

First and foremost, what a truly important list for leaders to Consider in their (hopefully) ongoing efforts to always improve their leadership. As I myself began my Consideration of the list, I was reminded of Dan Pink’s three elements that leaders need to provide in order to motivate their team. From his book, “Drive,” they are mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Addressing the seven mistakes aligns with / overlaps providing those three elements. The result is true leadership of a high-performing group!!!


Alli Polin September 26, 2017 at 12:26 am

I always appreciate that you bring in thought leaders like Dan Pink. I didn’t see it before but you’re absolutely right how it fits well within that framework.

Many thanks!



Steve L. Wintner, AIA Emeritus September 19, 2017 at 10:05 pm

Alli, an excellent article that resonated with me in several ways. I ‘interpreted’ each of the 7 Mistakes, in terms of my own experience, and found that with exception of two of the descriptions, I am aligned with each of your thoughts.
My 7 alternate interpretations of the 7 listed Mistakes are as follows:
“1. Waiting too long to help”, and the suggested option, or as you phrased it; “How can I help?”
Alt: For me, as a firm leader, not offering help is as much a mistake as asking how you can help. My issue with asking, puts the leader in the position of appearing to be ‘taking the monkey off the employees back’, putting the responsibility on his/her own back. Not a good idea. Firm leaders have more than enough of their own relevant responsibilities for the firm, without adding someone else’s responsibility to the load, regardless of the magnitude. Instead, let all the employee know you are available to discuss their best options for resolving any of their work-related issue, without accepting any responsibility, or credit, for the final outcome.
2. “Speaking for the firm”. Could be misinterpreted in all the ways indicated. Worst, is the sense of a lack of trust in staff decision-making abilities.
3. “Do it all – declining any help”. Also, a trust issue and a lack of understanding the benefits of effectively delegating. Leaders might consider the following quote by Paul Sloane: “Only do, what only you can do”. I have tacked on “…and effectively delegate the rest”.
4. “Caring about image, rather than doing what’s right”. Appears to be and ‘ego’ problem, a sense of inadequacy. In the past 8+ months we have all learned what that looks like at the highest level.
5. “Never moving beyond their tiny, inner circle”. A ‘killer’ for any benefits accrued from team-building.
6. “Jumping on mistakes”. Lack of awareness of how much this stifles a culture of learning and is demotivating for younger staff. Impacts employee retention negatively.
7. “Stand apart”. Also a team building killer. Doesn’t promote dynamic, high-energy, enjoyable work environment.
Sadly, these ‘7 Mistakes’ describe the majority of our business world environments, not the exception.
Thanks Alli for posting this eye-opener article for our nation’s business leaders.


Alli Polin September 26, 2017 at 12:35 am


I’m very grateful for your robust comment. Interesting to get your take on “How can I help” too. I think you’re right… if it means taking on too much or giving people an excuse to do less than they’re capable of doing because they know their boss will take it on, it’s an issue. When I was thinking about leaders who are unwilling to roll up their sleeves and help get things done, I missed this point and it’s an important one.

I hope that people use this post and others like it as a start to opening their eyes and making a much-needed change.

Many thanks!




Gary Gruber September 20, 2017 at 6:47 am

A great list and one of the compelling reasons it’s so right on target is that it’s based on your solid experience. I often found the “waiting too long” syndrome rampant among organizations, as well as in individuals, and while we often learn from our mistakes, why do we tend to repeat them? Is it because we don’t learn enough to change our behaviors? Or is there some more obscure, deeper psychological dynamic at work? I think, perhaps, the latter. And then there’s the comfort with the status quo thing and not wanting to get too uncomfortable, that is, until we are disrupted totally.


Alli Polin September 26, 2017 at 12:40 am

Love your questions here, Gary. If we’re learning from our mistakes, why are we doing them again (and again?) I wonder if every time, we’re learning a different lesson. Also, I agree with you on not wanting to step too deeply into the discomfort of change. One foot in, one foot out is not the same as making a much-needed change.

I know we share a passion for personal change and transformation. Thanks for getting me, and others, thinking!



Jon Mertz September 20, 2017 at 10:03 am


Another one to add may be: Forgetting the purpose. Leaders can make the mistake of sidelining the purpose by not communicating clearly and often enough or by becoming to self-centered (or letting certain people do so).

Focusing on the purpose of our work is a leadership responsibility.



Alli Polin September 26, 2017 at 12:42 am

Right on, Jon! Recently I’ve had an up-close view into an organization that was making changes that positively impacted the bottom line (on an immediate basis) but put the mission at risk. When we lose sight of our organizational an individual purpose, it’s an issue that can take everything off track.




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