4 Mistakes New Leaders Make

Sep 13, 2021

Welcome to leadership.

Welcome to your newly appointed position as the team leader.

Or if you’ve been in leadership for a while, welcome to the realization that we are always growing and learning as leaders. And part of that growth involves examining our past beliefs and actions and considering whether or not we were mistaken. In my work with leaders across a variety of industries and sectors, I see a lot of mistakes. Well-meaning leaders—especially new leaders—often stumble into the wrong actions or wrong mentalities when leading their team.

To help you avoid that fate, in this article we’ll outline the 4 most common mistakes new leaders make and we’ll offer a different perspective and a different action you can take to level up your leadership.

Calling All The Shots

The first mistake new leaders make is calling all the shots. Too often, leaders join an existing team or are tasked with assembling a new team and immediately assume they know the best way to move forward, the best way to assign tasks, and the best way to influence individuals on the team. But the truth is that there’s only a very small likelihood that your first impressions of how to lead this new team are going to match up to reality. As the philosopher Mike Tyson once said “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”

Rather than even use your mouth, use your ears. Start your leadership tenure with a listening tour. Take the time to meet everyone on your team—both individually and as a team—and listen to their perspectives and observe their behavior as they interact with each other. Make sure you understand the entire situation your team is in, as well as the knowledge, skills, and abilities of everyone on your team. And even then, bring the team in on the decisions. You’ll not only make better decisions—you’ll better influence your team.

Solving Problems Solo

The second mistake that new leaders make is solving problems solo. Similarly, to calling all the shots, solving one individual teammate’s problem without consulting others can lead to a disastrous decision and undermined credibility. When you first begin to lead your team, individual teammates will come to you with their complaints, their questions, and their problems. But their perspective on the root causes (and hence best solutions) to those problems is likely one-sided and missing information. Sometimes, their questions might even be an attempt to gain a few political points before you get to know the whole team.

Instead of jumping in and offering a solution—or even brainstorming a solution with just that teammate—take the time to step back and ask a simple question: who else is affected by this problem? Identify who else is facing that problem and who would be affected by any solutions you’d put in place. Then, bring them into the conversation. You’ll get a more diverse perspective on the problem at hand and you’ll identify solutions that better incorporate the whole system your team operates within.

Focusing On Process

The third mistake that new leaders make often is focusing on process, or at least focusing on process too much. You can’t ignore the process. Your team was handed an objective or a collection of tasks to complete. Those tasks and how they’re assigned is a process—a workflow—and that process sits inside a larger set of systems and processes within your organization. You can’t achieve your objectives if you don’t understand the process.

But you also can’t achieve your objectives if you don’t understand your people.

In fact, understanding the people on your team is far more important than understanding the process. You need to know how to get stuff done—but you need to know the people who are going to get that stuff done more. You need to know their strengths and weaknesses, their knowledge, skills, and abilities, and their personality traits and preferences. You won’t make your team truly collaborate as a team if you don’t understand their variables. So, focus on people first, and process second.

Overlooking Purpose

And the final mistake new leaders make—at least the final one this article will outline—is overlooking purpose. Next to overlooking your people, overlooking the role of purpose in motivating those people is a big unforced error. There are processes to improve and objectives to accomplish, but all of those things require a motivated team. And one of the most effective ways to motivate individuals to help them understand the purpose behind those actions is to answer the question, “Why are we doing the work that we’re doing?”

But it’s not just about why. It’s also about who. It’s not just about reciting the mission statement or vision of senior leadership. A growing body of research suggests it’s better to motivate people by connecting them with people who are beneficiaries of the work being done. This can be customers or stakeholders whose lives are made better, but it can also be internal customers or coworkers who can do their job better when your team works together better. Collect the stories from who is being helped by your team’s work and make sure you’re always ready to share them any time your team needs a motivational boost.

Leading a team is cultivating a group of relationships and harnessing that relationship power into effective collaboration. And what all these mistakes have in common is that they overlook the role of those relationships and the importance of incorporating everyone before getting to work. But when you focus on “we” before you focus on work—you help your team do their best work ever.

By David Burkus