Don’t Make This Fatal Leadership Mistake


When you first start working, your job is well defined. Your role comes with clear expectations that will be judged by a fairly specific set of criteria. If you’re in customer service, it may be in the number of calls you receive and issues you resolve. If you’re in sales, it may be your monthly quota. If you’re in retail, it may be in the total sales attributed to you in a shift. As you move up in an organization, your job description becomes less about what you do and more about how you can assemble, equip, and empower others to accomplish mission-critical objectives. That means the larger the organization and the more influential the position, the farther away you’ll be from the actual work product that is being created and delivered.

  • I don’t sit in on every admissions counselor’s interview of prospective students.
  • I don’t travel with every coach to evaluate prospective athletes.
  • I don’t sit in on every classroom lecture.

That would be impossible. It would also impact my ability to do the things that only I can do in my role. Therefore, I must trust the people who do those things on a day in and day out basis to accomplish the goals set for them and to execute their roles with excellence. You must have confidence that trust is transferred through every layer of leadership in your organization.

The people around you will limit or accelerate your influence.

The only way to accomplish this is to surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback, challenge your assumptions and conclusions, and support you in taking your big vision and making sure everyone is clear on their role and how it contributes to the overall goals of the organization.

So why does all of this matter? Because, if you’re listening to the wrong people, you’ll get stuck, stay stuck, and never get unstuck.

It’s a hard lesson to learn as a leader, but not everyone has your best interest at heart. And your need to trust and depend on others leaves you inherently vulnerable. That’s not a bad thing. To be vulnerable is to be human. But it does mean you must be mindful of the people you allow to influence your thinking and decision making.

The momentum you have today will be diminished with people who bring their agendas to the table.

Your risk isn’t limited to your leadership team. A leader is influenced by many different people, groups, and structures of power and influence such as Board members, community leaders, political leaders, etc. The more public your platform, the more people will try to use you and your position to advance their cause.

Now I don’t want to leave you with the sense that I believe everyone acts with bad intentions. Such is not the case. My experience has been that most people have very good intentions and will act with a sense of duty and courage toward the greater good—even if it costs them something personally.

But there are always one or two people very eager to gain the attention of the leader who intends to use that opportunity to advance their personal agendas. While it shouldn’t be something that makes you paranoid, it’s a reality you must be very mindful of and walk into with your eyes wide open.

The fatal mistake any leader can make is not auditing the voices who are influencing your perspective about what is and what is possible.

Here are five warning signs to pay attention to:

  1. When someone says, “You can trust me to keep anything you say a secret.” If this is true, it won’t need to be said.
  2. When someone, especially not on your leadership team, works hard to gain your attention through trips, gifts, or other unusual means. If something doesn’t seem right or the gesture doesn’t flow out of a natural relationship, then there might be other purposes in play.
  3. When someone agrees with you publicly but doesn’t follow through on their commitments privately. As my Mom and Dad used to say, “The proof is in the pudding.”
  4. When someone gives you clear direction, insight, or advice without any “skin” in the game. If that person stands to gain no matter what and you stand to lose more than gain, then it’s likely you’re not dealing with a team player.
  5. When someone makes special or unusually favorable requests about time, money, and influence that are out of sync with their investment and track record. If someone on your team has done a fantastic job, reward them. But when someone hasn’t performed or wants something typically reserved for tenured or seasoned team members who have a track record of success, then they may be using you to short-circuit the blood, sweat, and tears necessary to earn it.

So what should you do when you recognize that someone you have let into your circle of influence may not be who they portray themselves to be?

  • Don’t ignore it. Sticking your head in the sand only delays the inevitable.
  • Seek the advice of those you trust. Pull one or two people aside you can trust and solicit their feedback.
  • Evaluate the intentions of the individual against their track record. Take a step back and evaluate if there is harmony or dissonance between the two.
  • Reflect on the individual’s upside or downside if you follow through or act on their advice, suggestion, or strategy. Does everyone win in their mind or just them?
  • Go with your gut. Sometimes you just have to follow your intuition.

The most significant litmus test you have is time.

Eventually, people who want to unrightfully abuse access to you and use you to advance their cause will reveal themselves. They’ll get impatient, frustrated, and lose focus. That’s when you’ll know it’s time to audit those people and remove them from your circle of influence.

As a leader, you must protect your mind, trust others, and follow through on the vision you’ve set forth. You won’t be able to do it alone. Just be sure you’re marching forward with people who share your values and intentions.

CHALLENGE: Can you say with certainty that the people you spend time with and invest in share your values and intentions? If not, who do you need to audit—and perhaps edit—out of your circle of influence? Take a stand for yourself and everyone in your organization by not allowing people to unrightfully create drift from the collective vision you are working to make a reality.