5 More Big Mistakes Leaders Make

In PART ONE of HAVE YOU EARNED THE RIGHT TO LEAD, John Hamm explained why your employees may not see you as a leader…and what you can do to change their hearts and minds. Here are the other 5 mistakes Hamm points out:

MISTAKE #5: Punishing “good failures.” Great organizations encourage risk-taking. Why? Because innovation requires it. There can be no reward without risk. But if your employees take a risk and fail, and you come down on them like a hammer, guess what? They’ll never risk anything again. Unusually excellent leaders deliberately create high-risk, low-cost environments—a.k.a. cultures of trust—where people don’t live in fear of the consequences of failure.

Hamm says a digital camera is the perfect analogy to the kind of culture you want to create.

“There is no expense associated with a flawed digital photograph—financial or otherwise,” he explains. “You just hit the ‘delete’ button, and it disappears. No wasted film, slides, or prints. And we are aware of this relationship between mistakes and consequences when we pick up the camera—so we click away, taking many more photos digitally than we would have in a world of costly film. Because we know failure is free, we take chances, and in that effort we often get that one amazing picture that we wouldn’t have if we were paying for all the mistakes.”

MISTAKE #6: Letting employee enthusiasm fizzle. A big part of a leader’s job is to be compelling. That means you must recruit “A players” through a big vision of the future and a personal commitment to a mission. But it’s not enough to recruit once and then move on. Never assume “once enrolled, always enrolled.” Even the best followers need to be reminded again and again how fun, rewarding, and meaningful their work is.

In other words, when people seem to be losing their spark, they need to become “born again” employees. (Time to put on your evangelist cloak!)

“Enthusiasm is a renewable resource,” says Hamm. “Part of being compelling is reminding yourself that people want and need to be reenrolled all the time. This message doesn’t have to be over the top to be compelling. It may just entail reminding your team, once per quarter, why you come to the office every day, and letting them reflect on the reason they do the same.”

MISTAKE #7: Refusing to deal with your “weakest links.” Chronic underperformers spoil things for everyone else. They create resentment among employees who are giving it their all, and they drag down productivity. Leaders must have a plan for getting these problem children off the playground—and they must act on that plan without procrastination.

“The worst scenario of all is to have a plan for dealing with underperformers, to identify who those individuals are, and then not pull the trigger on the announced consequences, for reasons of sentimentality, weakness, or favoritism—or worst of all, an attempt to preserve leadership popularity,” writes Hamm.

Nothing can be more damaging to the morale and esprit de corps of a team than that kind of leadership. It destroys your authenticity, your trustworthiness, and your ability to compel others to act. It is the end of you as a leader. Indeed, it is better to have no weakest-link plan at all than one with obvious liabilities.

MISTAKE #8: Allowing people to “fail elegantly.” There are two basic operating modes for organizations under high-stakes execution pressure, writes Hamm. One is the mentality of winning, which we know about; the other, less obvious to the untrained eye, the disease of failing elegantly, is a very sophisticated and veiled set of coping behaviors by individuals, the purpose of which is to avoid the oncoming train of embarrassment when the cover comes off the lousy results that we’d prefer no one ever sees.

Essentially, when people stop believing they can win, some then devote their energy to how best to lose. This fancy losing often manifests as excuse-making, blaming, tolerating cut corners, and manipulating and editorializing data. Unusually excellent leaders know how to recognize these symptoms and intervene with urgency and strength of conviction to get everyone on the high road—a.k.a., the winner’s mindset.

“Passive acceptance of failure, and the rationalization that always goes with it, is a cancer that can begin anywhere in the organization, then metastasize to every office, including your own,” says Hamm. “You can prevent it by setting clear and precise standards of behavior for everyone on the team, as well as clear consequences for the violation of those standards. And you can control it through continuous and open communication with every member of your team (some who will spot the problem before you do) and, where necessary, redundant processes and systems.

“Most of all, you can cure the acceptance of failure by setting yourself as an example of zero tolerance (along with a welcome for honest admissions of error), of precision and care in all of your work, a clear-eyed focus on unvarnished results, and most of all, an unyielding and unwavering commitment to your success.”

MISTAKE #9: Delaying decisions until it’s too late. Not making a decision is almost always worse than making a bad decision, says Hamm. As long as they aren’t utterly ill-advised and catastrophic, bad decisions at least keep the organization moving in pace with changing events—and thus can often be rectified by a course correction.

Not making a decision at all, although it may seem the safe choice—because, intellectually, it positions you to make the right move when the reality of the situation is more revealed—actually strips your organization of its momentum, stalling it at the starting line, and makes it highly unlikely that you can ever get up to speed in time to be a serious player.

“Unusually excellent leaders don’t just make decisions; they pursue them,” writes Hamm. “Because the speed of the organization is often its destiny—and because that speed directly correlates with the speed with which its decisions are made or not made—these leaders are haunted by the fear that somewhere in the organization a critical decision is being left orphaned and unmade.”

MISTAKE #10: Underestimating the weight your words—and your moods—carry. Hamm tells the story of John Adler, who, prior to his CEO tenure at Adaptec, was a senior vice president at Amdahl, one of the pioneering computer companies of Silicon Valley. One morning as he was walking down the long hallway to his office, he encountered some maintenance guys who were doing repairs. He greeted them cheerfully and then, just to make conversation, mentioned how difficult it must be to work in such a dark hallway.

The next morning when Adler came to work, he was surprised to find five maintenance men all carefully replacing every light bulb in the hallway. When he questioned the flurry of activity, the men said, “We’re replacing the light bulbs, boss. You said it was too dark in here.” Hamm says this story illustrates why leaders need to think carefully about every word they say—because others certainly will.

“Every conversation with, and every communication from, a leader carries added weight because of the authority of the position behind it,” writes Hamm. “Have a bad day and snap at one of your subordinates, and that person may go back to a cramped cubicle and start updating his résumé, or go out and get drunk, or miss a night’s sleep. Your momentary bad day could be his nightmare—and something he will remember forever. Your mood matters; don’t make it your employees’ problem.”

So if you recognize any of these mistakes in yourself, are you forever doomed as a leader? Of course not, says Hamm. We’re all human, and we can all learn from our errors and redeem ourselves. And yet, he adds, there is no shame in realizing that leadership is not for everyone—or in declining to lead if it’s not for you. (In your heart you probably already know.)

“Leadership is a choice,” he says. “It is a deep, burning desire to engage with people and rally a community to achieve greatness. Leadership can be difficult, thankless, frustrating, maddening work at times. It is only the passion of leading on the field—the thrill of looking other human beings in the eyes and seeing their energy, willingness, trust, and commitment—that makes it all worthwhile, in a very quiet, private way.”

John Hamm is one of the top leadership experts in Silicon Valley. He was named one of the country’s Top 100 venture capitalists in 2009 by AlwaysOn and has led investments in many successful high-growth companies as a partner at several Bay Area VC firms. He is also the author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership www.unusuallyexcellent.com, available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.