Four Hard Things Leaders Need to Master to Avoid Big Mistakes

Mistakes happen.  They are a part of life as sure as the sun’s inevitable rise each day.  Successful organizations have the ability to course correct quickly and assign words to the said correction that soften the reality – such as ‘pivot’ which if we were all being honest means ‘correcting that horrible decision I made previously’.  Of course, pink slips are rare in the world of pivoting but often in the world of fuck ups.  Let’s hear it for pivoting! Pivoting rocks!

But how can leaders avoid making the mistakes (I mean pivots) that sink the ship?  The answer is really simple but very hard to execute.  The answer comes down to focusing on 4 simple things but very hard things to execute on:

Hard thing #1: As leaders we make hundreds of decisions every day that impact the lives of those we serve.  The first hard thing to appreciate is that all of these things don’t matter all of the time.  In fact, few of the decisions we make will truly have an impact on the goal at hand.  The rest is noise.  They may seem important at the time, but they aren’t that important in hitting the goals that grow the business. Leaders keep this problem in check by putting every decision through a filter in real time.  That filter is answering the question ‘does this action get me closer or farther away from achieving the mission?’ in real time.  That takes us to the second hard thing.

Hard thing #2: Specific clarity on the mission.  You might think to yourself as you read this that mission clarity isn’t hard; everyone at work knows his or her job. That naiveté is the match that lit the fuse of impending doom.  As the executive team defines the strategy, it must be continuously communicated, reinforced and repeated, like the old shampoo commercials: wash, rinse and repeat. That clever marketing tactic that made our Mom’s insist on the merits of going through a bottle of shampoo in half the time is a necessity in the world of mission clarity.  Once the telephone game starts getting played with communicating down the strategy as defined in the boardroom, it’s amazing that the entire team realizes they work at the same company.  Communicate, reinforce and repeat is the answer but the good news you can stop washing your hair twice.    

Hard thing #3: I care about everyone, but I care about the team more. Never underestimate how hard this is for a leader to implement.  Through the normal course of working together, which inevitably means going into the trenches together, relationships are built, often very strong relationships.  Sometimes even friendships that last a lifetime.  But what is good for one person’s career can be devastating for the entire team.  It is a counterintuitive action for a servant leader to do something that sets an individual back even though the entire team might become the beneficiary.  That’s not easy to do in practice but something that every leader will have to face multiple times in his or her career. 

Hard thing #4: Growth will hit a bottleneck and be restricted if you don’t lead the right way years before you need to lead the right way.  What do I mean by ‘the right way’?  The first rule of leadership is to field the best team possible.  After fulfilling that critical success factor, the next job is to prepare that team for future growth.  In order to accomplish that feat, the team needs to learn.  The only way to learn is to fail.  Bad leaders fire team members who fail.  Great leaders allow failure to occur and create an environment to learn from those mistakes.  That investment in the future is key to sustainable growth.  It is impossible to hire enough leaders into the organization in the future that doesn’t derail the culture.  Leadership can be supplemented from outside the company but must be homegrown.  Limiting the learning opportunity of the team will fail the company years from now even if you can’t see the impending apocalypse today. 

No one said leadership was going to be easy, but I hope that you can reflect on these 4 things and think of ways to apply them to your career. 

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