3 Mistakes Every New Leader Needs To Face Head-on


Leon Shapiro

December 9, 2014

When Thomas Edison was asked about the thousands of failures he experienced while inventing the light bulb, he quipped, “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

In the tradition of Edison, truly innovative leaders make mistakes. They learn from them and try again. And while no one likes to be wrong, there are a few mistakes that every leader should make at least once early in his or her career. Why? Because these mistakes will test you as a leader on just about every level—from the strategic to the tactical to the emotional.

Quite simply, getting these big three business mistakes out of the way now will make you a better leader.

1. Keeping Your Struggles To Yourself

It’s lonely at the top.

Leaders have plenty of direct reports and employees, but are usually sorely lacking in the internal peer department. This problem intensifies as professionals move up the career ladder-–especially for the CEO. That means they’re missing the critical sounding board that so many employees take for granted. When leaders face new challenges, they feel the absence of that sounding board very acutely.

So what to do? Often, among new leaders, the first instinct is to conceal that fear or inexperience. Not wanting to show weakness is natural—you are the boss after all—but it’s important to know this is exactly when you need the counsel of peers outside your organization the most.

Whether through formal peer advisory groups or informal events like a standing lunch, valuable insight, advice, and ultimately confidence can be crucial to your success. In time, the people who eventually rise to the top of their profession understand just how critical it is to learn from leaders outside of their organization.

2. Focusing Exclusively On The Present

Digital analyst Brian Solis once described a Kodak moment not as a precious snapshot of life as depicted in the old TV commercials, but as the very instant you choose to stay the course rather than innovate.

Kodak, if you recall, fell victim to its own unwillingness to take digital technology—a technology it had actually developed—and bring it to market out of fear that it would cannibalize its core film business. Evidently, however, Kodak’s competitors didn’t have that same fear. They seized the opportunity while the Eastman Kodak Company filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

You can add Blockbuster and Borders to this list of organizations that were too busy focusing on business as they knew it (and felt they had to protect) to really look at the future until it was too late. In every case it doesn’t end well.

The point? If you make this mistake on a smaller project early on in your career, you’re not likely to make it again when the stakes are high, like when you’re creating a five-year roadmap for your entire company.

3. Not Correcting Obvious Mistakes Immediately

This is especially true when you’ve invested a great deal of time and money in filling a key position in your organization. You confidently make the choice only to discover in the first month that you’ve made a mistake. Hiring mistakes happen, it’s one of the biggest challenges in growing a business. Living with them shouldn’t.

It’s feels like a tough call in the moment. You loathe the idea of starting from scratch because you want so desperately to work; however, the position will become vacant again and continue to place a burden on those having to pick up the slack. It’s also a challenge because you want to give the new hire a chance to turn it around. You’re hoping that if you give it one more month, everything will work out. My experience suggests that it doesn’t.

While there’s nothing more important for all involved than to have the right person in the right position in your organization, this advice extends to other types of mistakes as well. Don’t turn a mistake into an epic failure by waiting to take corrective action.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Keep those words of wisdom and these three mistakes in mind as you forge your path as a leader. You and your organization will be all the stronger for it.

Leon Shapiro serves as CEO of Vistage, an international peer advisory organization for business leaders . Previously chairman of the board at Vistage, Leon is an experienced executive who has held key leadership positions in top organizations including Gartner, Inc., Warner Music Group and The Advisory Board Company.

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