What’s the Absolute Worst Thing You Can Do As a Leader?

by Alli Polin on September 20, 2016


Lately, I’ve been noticing some parallels between poor leadership behavior and young kids. Not shocking since I think we’ve all met a childish leader or two. Think about it, poor leaders and small children are willing to dig deeper into a hole instead of ever admitting they’re wrong. Frankly, it’s the worst thing you can do as a leader, friend, spouse, teammate or family member.

Ever notice how kids dig deeper when they’re caught in a lie?

I did brush my teeth.

You did?

Yes! At least 10 minutes.

You did?

Yeah. And then I flossed. I know you like it when I floss. Can I use my iPad now?

Want to change your story?

No, because I brushed.

I’m going to check your toothbrush.

Check it.

I’m going now.

I can’t believe you don’t believe me. (Insert tantrum/crying/stomping here) I did it. I just want my iPad.

This stupid scene plays out in millions of homes daily with parents rolling their eyes. If only the kid in question admitted that they didn’t do it, they could just get it done and then everyone would get what they wanted. Mom and Dad would have a kid with brushed teeth and kid would have their iPad or toy of choice.  Instead, it’s the battle of Raging Angry Mommy vs. Can’t Turn Back Now Kid.

Childish right?

Digging into the bad choice.

Bet you can list 10 times it happened at work today. Or… oh, dare I bring it up… the race for the US President.

Childish Leadership and Bad Decisions…

In an organization where I worked, employees were allowed to work from home on a case by case basis. One day, senior leadership decided that working from home was too flexible and too discretionary. As a result, they published a policy.

  • Employees can work from home only after two years of employment.
  • Employees may not work from home on a Monday or a Friday.
  • Employees may not work from home for two consecutive days of the week.

What happened to trust? What would happen to the employees who already had a great remote working arrangement in place?

A number of people, who were working remotely consecutive days a week and on Fridays, decided that instead of freaking out, they’d talk to the leaders.  Surely, sharing their track record of success would help the senior team see the rigidity of the new policy, right? Wrong.

No change.

They went to the leadership team again to better understand their concerns. Maybe together they could come up with a new policy to address their concerns and enable flexibility.

No change.

The employees didn’t want to pull out a threat to get what they wanted, but a few were willing to because it was true. If they policy didn’t change, they’d leave.

No change.

A few of the employees found other employment.

No change.

More employees resigned because they believed that their success would be compromised when a talented people left as a result of the policy.

No change.

The leadership team didn’t see talent… they saw butts. Their concern was butts in seats, and you could always find more chair warmers. Problem was, you couldn’t find people with more talent than those who resigned.

I wish I could say that the business suffered as a direct result of this policy (which it probably did), but business suffered anyway – this was during the Global Financial Crisis. All the more reason why talent was essential.

The leaders were worried about losing face. They put out a policy and if they retracted it, they worried they’d look bad, so they dug in deep.

Let me assure you. They looked bad. This was a standing strong with policy fail.

Let your leadership shine as you backtrack, not as you plow forward.

What’s the Worst Thing You Can Do as a Leader?

Why assume that people will lose respect for you as a leader because you have an open mind, are humble and are learning and evolving your policies and approaches? Come on!

The worst thing you can do is be afraid that you’ll lose everyone’s respect if you back down from an unpopular decision. If that fear keeps you from backtracking, you’ve got a problem that’s bigger than unpopular policies. When you get input, recognize poor decisions and work together to make things better? That’s leadership


Five Ways Leaders Turn a Bad Call into a Great Move


When someone shares an alternative approach or gaps in your reasoning, it’s not the time to put up your defenses, be grateful. Someone is willing to speak frankly with you – something most leaders get far too rarely. Remain open to what you hear.


The people on your team contribute to the team success as much as you do, albeit in a different way. People are not bodies or butts – they are contributors, thinkers and essential for your success. If you value your people, you care about what they have to say. If they’re up in arms about a policy or a decision, there’s probably a good reason.


You can’t fake caring. You can say all the right words but if the feeling’s missing, people know. Successful leaders care about their people’s happiness and hearts as much as the bottom line. Don’t tell people, “I hear you” if all you really aren’t listening to a word. Care enough to see the possibility of change.


This is where the backtrack is moving forward. What if we changed our approach? What would you propose? How can we work together on an alternative? Share your vision and ask questions as much if not more than throw out ideas. Let your people wow you as you work together on a solution.

[If you think this is the moment where you look weak or stupid, think again. Backing off a bad idea is the best thing you can do for your leadership and organization. Weak leaders dig in; strong leaders reach for a hand to get out.]


Leaders not only create an inspirational culture but also an aspirational one. What is your shared hope? Shared goal? Shared vision? Invite your team to join you in not only envisioning the future but trust that they are in it with you 100%. Aspire together to be great instead of pushing down (policies, ideas, approaches) – uplift.

Not every decision is a good one. That’s the truth for every single one of us. However, the worst decision is thinking your original decision is do-or-die. Come on, there is always another way forward. Dig deep into your humility, take a deep breath, and be the leader you’re meant to be.

What have you learned about your personal leadership as you backtracked instead of plowing forward?

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Mertz September 20, 2016 at 7:10 am


Key points. When I took responsibility for a bad decision or outcome, it enables me and others to move forward with new solutions and better results. We can not keep our pace with what is not working. We need to stride up to better ways and collaboration with others.



Alli Polin September 21, 2016 at 4:12 am

Your comment gives me insight into your leadership style, Jon. New solutions… better results… Leaders with huge egos are unable to make the move from ME to WE in service of the team’s and the client’s success. Thanks for leading the way.



Cynthia Bazin September 20, 2016 at 7:32 am

Great article Alli! So important for leadership to listen to their team and you provide an excellent scenario detailing that out. I appreciate your wisdom… your leadership! You are awesome my friend.


Alli Polin September 21, 2016 at 4:11 am

I remember the day that new policy was shared. A good friend of mine was a manager for one of the core teams and she worked from home every Friday and frequently one other day too. She was a rockstar to her clients and her team loved her too. Unfortunately, without the flexibility, she could no longer make the commute work with her family life.

Thanks a ton for your support and comment too!



Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ September 20, 2016 at 8:44 am

Great points Alli all hinging on your statement “Leaders stand strong with people not just policy.” Right on!!

Your “5 Ways Leaders Turn a Bad Call into a Great Move” is a call to action for every leader who strives for excellence.

Wonderful post!
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™


Alli Polin September 21, 2016 at 4:08 am

Thanks so much, Kate! Policies can’t trump doing the right thing for people. We have the ability to change policies but once trust is broken with people, it’s incredibly hard to rebuild.



Terri September 20, 2016 at 8:47 am

Hi Alli,

Excellent points. There can be power in saying “I was wrong” or “we made a mistake.” The power shows up in vulnerability and humbleness – both qualities of human-ness and good leadership. Those phrases can also go along way in building trust and earning respect.

When leaders admit mistakes, they create a culture where being open is fostered and blame is not tolerated. It’s a culture that enables problems to surface faster and be addressed more quickly. And as leaders, isn’t that what we want to happen?

Will share.



Alli Polin September 21, 2016 at 4:07 am

The culture you describe is somewhere I’d want to work! I hope that more and more leaders value showing up as human IN it with the team as opposed to separate from them while shouting a battle cry that resonates with no one.

Truly value your insights, Terri. Thanks for your comment.



Linda Fisher Thornton September 20, 2016 at 9:06 am

Nice article! Leaders may want to stick to bad choices due to concerns about “saving face” but in the long run people become disengaged when they’re not listened to. Great leaders know that the whole point of leadership is not the success of the leader, it’s the success of the team.



Alli Polin September 21, 2016 at 4:03 am

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Linda!

Your point is well taken. It’s impossible for the leader to be a success or create success if the team isn’t with them on the journey. Disengagement is a risk that some leaders are willing to take because, um, it makes them look or feel powerful? It’s simply the wrong way to go and definitely not leadership in motion.



LaRae Quy September 20, 2016 at 11:03 am

Great points, Alli! Having a flexible and agile mindset is essential for success…unfortunately, too many leaders dig into their bad decisions, as you point out. Every major decision should have an exit strategy…some consider that sort of thinking as self-defeating but it’s stupid not to put into place a method of evaluating and tweaking the results in a timely manner so adjustments can be made…


Alli Polin September 21, 2016 at 4:01 am

Great advice, LaRae – to have an exit strategy. I’m sure that when you were in the FBI it’s what kept you alive and helped you be successful in your missions. If there’s only one way forward, it better be a risk worth taking.

Lately, I’ve become frustrated with some of the advice out there that says you should never give up. I strongly disagree. Sometimes, as a leader or small business owner you need to give up on one dream or path and pivot to another to create success. Persisting on the straight and narrow isn’t always the best way forward.

Thanks for your addition here, LaRae!



Terri Klass September 20, 2016 at 11:05 am

Excellent piece Alli! Great leaders are authentic and humble and therefore know that they will make mistakes. When those mistakes are made, it is so empowering to a team to be part of the solution.

I am working with a client who is going through a transition and realized that they had to de-merge because the merger just wasn’t working. It’s been hard and a bit embarrassing but worth the action taken.

Thanks Alli and will share!


Alli Polin September 21, 2016 at 3:58 am

Wow. De-merging. That is an incredible example of doing what’s right instead of staying the course just because it was the one they were on. I’m sure you’re supporting those leaders through this process and also getting some tremendous insights about what it takes to do something like that as well. Thanks so much for sharing, Terri!!



Ingrid September 22, 2016 at 7:51 pm

Great post Alli. I’ve always found that admitting you’ve made a mistake is the best course of action. Following up with the question “What can we learn from this?” takes the sting out of things and enables people to start contributing in a positive way. Sometimes the best way forward comes out of a mistake.


Alli Polin September 23, 2016 at 1:13 am

For some people, admitting a mistake feels like the end of the world. In truth, you’re spot on – mistakes are launching pads for stronger solutions… not something to hide behind or dig in deep.

Totally with you!



Barbara Kimmel September 28, 2016 at 6:57 pm

Imagine how much time could have been saved if leadership got “buy in” from employees before implementing the new policy!


Alli Polin September 28, 2016 at 6:59 pm

Time, energy, focus, effort… I can still remember sitting in the conference room when the slides were presented to the team. Interestingly, we were a remote division and the presentation came from HQ. Talk about disconnect.

Thanks, Barbara!



Leave a Comment