Many of the most valuable leadership lessons CEOs learn throughout our careers come from mistakes we have made along the way, the setbacks and hard-won triumphs that have helped us in our ongoing pursuit of becoming better leaders. Through interactions with leaders during my career, I’ve noticed that leadership mistakes typically fall into a few common categories. How leaders respond to those mistakes is what will either allow them to grow or remain stagnant.
Below are 5 key mistakes CEOs make and how to learn from them:
- Mistake #1: Being insular: It can be easy, as a leader, to form conclusions first rather than to ask questions. When leaders believe in their point of view so much that they have an agenda for their discussions, they aren’t really listening to and learning from diverse views. This mistake can show up, for example, when leaders only hire people who think just like them – it’s not as effective as bringing diverse perspectives to the table. It also occurs when new leaders come into companies and want to copy and paste winning strategies from past experience, without first listening to the insights and feedback of customers and existing employees. There is a reason the Socratic method continues to be so popular; most strong ideas or solutions to business problems come from asking questions and focused collaboration.
- Mistake #2: Not being clear in direction: Leading is largely about setting the direction, vision and expectations and encouraging employees to activate. This requires frequent communication about the mission, vision, purpose and values, and the role employees play in getting there. And communication goes both ways. The best leaders listen to feedback from their team with an open mind, curiosity and empathy. Actions matter too. Employees notice when leaders stray from the mission, vision and purpose, and only stick to their values when it’s convenient, particularly in times of uncertainty.
- Mistake #3: Focusing only on short-term growth: This can happen when leaders are so focused on the rat race of quarter-to-quarter goals that they forget about healthy long-term growth. Short-term rallying cries can be really effective, but only when they align with a company’s long-term strategy. Maintaining focus on longer-term goals demonstrates a belief in the fundamentals of the business and the strategy everyone is committed to executing upon.
- Mistake #4: Micromanaging: Successful CEOs create a consistent rhythm of communications with co-workers around priorities and accomplishments. When leaders are clear about what people should focus on, and leave their team to do the work on their own terms, employees feel more self-directed and valued. It’s important to define the goals and outcomes and trust team members to figure out the path. Of course, one must always have checkpoints in place to understand progress, but micromanaging will lead to people feeling underappreciated and undervalued.
- Mistake #5: Focusing on setbacks that are outside your control. The pandemic provided yet another reminder of all the things outside our direct control that can impact our businesses. CEOs can set an optimistic tone for their businesses by focusing on areas of the business they can impact instead of staying stuck on challenges outside their control. The most effective leaders focus on the long-term goal of supporting their customers and coworkers regardless of what challenges come along. Like a world class athlete, effective CEOs avoid excuses and focus on the things they can control.
Like all CEOs, sometimes I’ll look back on decisions that I made that seemed right at the time, only to realize later that there was a better way. I have learned that “Time changes everything.” The key is to try not to make the same mistake twice and to course correct in a way that’s intentional. Mistakes truly can be a catalyst for both personal and business growth – if leaders take the time to acknowledge them, take ownership of them, and discover why the blind spot emerged. Once CEOs embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, they can help to shape and enhance their own leadership success.
Sam Reese is CEO of Vistage, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsize businesses. Over his 35-year career as a business leader, Sam has led large and midsize organizations and has advised CEOs and key executives of companies all over the world. To learn how a peer advisory group can help you navigate challenges, make better decisions and achieve growth, visit vistage.com.