So many who read our blog posts work with students, and many of you develop student leaders. Our goal is to help you in that process.
After consulting with both high schools and universities this past year, I noticed several common traps that ambushed young leaders (student leaders and young professionals) during their first year of leading. Several students who fell into these “traps” ended up quitting their leadership position, due to frustrations or unmet expectations from fellow students. More than once, I heard the phrase from students: “OMG! This leadership thing is harder than I thought it would be.”
There may never have been a truer statement.
So, let me offer seven of the most common mistakes young leaders make, so you can spot them when they happen and perhaps even prevent them this year.
1. Mistake One: We keep our head down and get lost in our work.
Often, students are given leadership positions because they are “get it done” people. They are result-oriented and high achievers. This is the positive side of the coin. The other side of the coin is—this can push some of them to get completely caught up in the work, and they lose sight of the big picture or the little people. Their personal drive can sabotage their ability to lead a team. It’s been said for years: If you want to travel faster, travel alone. If you want to travel farther, travel together. But—you must go slower to take others with you.
2. Mistake Two: We forget to stay close to our people.
In the beginning, everything is new and fresh. Leaders are just happy to have teams around them. People are excited; the project is novel and everyone appreciates each other. Over time, we take people for granted. Leaders often make the mistake of presuming peers don’t need consistent encouragement and feedback. Leaders continue to climb to higher heights and new levels of activity, leaving their team below, in the dust. Effective leaders schedule times to stay in touch with their people. They remember that people tend to get down on what they’re not up on.
3. Mistake Three: We assume it’s less difficult than it really is.
Experienced leaders know: There’s always more to a job than you first think, especially if you’ve never done it. Often, when I have mastered my work over the decades and assume I know what team members are feeling or thinking, I can lose sight of how hard something is, especially at the beginning. Student leaders can fall into this trap, forgetting what it feels like to be in the dark about how to do something and too afraid to admit you don’t know. It’s always helpful to step into the shoes of a new person and imagine what they feel.
4. Mistake Four: We neglect to ask for help.
Because leaders are frequently over-achievers, they can easily fall into a very different trap. They begin down a path with a plan, but then it doesn’t work. Or, at least not as well as they felt it would. At this point, they forget they can and need to ask for help from others. Pause and reflect on how we all got to be leaders—by being productive and self-sufficient. Now that we’re leading, it’s up to us to include our team on the journey. Others will assume we know what we’re doing, but remember, good leaders are not loners. Effective leaders remain teachable and have mentors.
5. Mistake Five: We wear a façade that we’re fine and have it all together.
This is a very similar trap. It’s the truth behind the Habitude®: The Fun House Mirror. When leaders don’t know what they’re doing, they can feel inadequate or embarrassed. The last thing they want is to be “found out.” So they project a false image; they exaggerate reports on their progress. They stop being authentic. The distorted image is a little like the image a funhouse mirror reflects when you stand in front of it. Soon, young leaders start telling little white lies; they fudge on the budget numbers; they exaggerate their scores or their followers. Eventually, it all catches up to them. Good leaders commit to staying authentic and communicate honestly where they stand.
6. Mistake Six: We repeat what we’ve done in the past.
Often, our worst mistake can be to assume that what worked before will work again. Often, I see students too afraid to take a risk or try something new. They simply do what last year’s leaders did, who coincidently did what the previous year’s leaders did. The fact is, the best players often don’t always make the best coaches because they get stuck in the past. Good leaders combine the art of learning from the past, with the art of asking the question: If we started over with this goal, would we do anything different?
7. Mistake Seven: We feel misunderstood and withdraw from others.
Criticism comes with the territory of leadership. Our first reaction is usually to withdraw from others and feel lonely. Our culture today fosters both a fear of criticism and an ability to hide behind a screen when it happens. The fact is, leaders will get misunderstood. They will get criticized and accused. Good leaders decide—it’s the price tag of leadership and it’s worth it. Thirty years ago, John Maxwell taught me: If I don’t let anyone get close to me, they won’t hurt me. But if I don’t let anyone get close to me, they can’t really help me, either.
The fact is, leadership can be hard and tedious. But it’s worth it. There’s nothing better than achieving something with a team that you could’ve never done alone.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you fallen into any of the “traps” above? Which ones?
2. Are your most common mistakes about dealing with people or with goals?
3. What might be the best steps you can take in response to your mistakes?
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