The Biggest Mistake Leaders Make

Updated: Nov 4, 2021


During a recent panel discussion at the Leadership Accelerator, I was asked to identify the biggest mistake leaders make. There were 30 panelists, and, not surprisingly, everyone had their own unique and insightful perspective. Many of the mistakes my colleagues named will sound uncomfortably familiar: leaders avoid key issues, are overly critical, they do, instead of leading, are disrespectful, and delegate badly.

If you are like myself and the other panelists, you have likely seen these leadership mistakes many times. However, according to an article in Forbes proclaiming an all-out leadership crisis that began in the 2000’s and is getting steadily worse, “There is an alarmingly weak correspondence between power and competency. Those in power are not necessarily up to the job of discharging their responsibilities to the benefit of those they lead.

Now think about that statement. What Forbes just described is not a “mistake”. There’s a flaw in the system. What is going on here?


The Big Leadership Mistake


There is one massive leadership mistake, which, if made from the outset, can be extremely difficult to overcome. This mistake is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it can be hard to see it as a mistake at all; it is a failure to differentiate between managing and leading.

The distinction between managing and leading was identified by Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik in 1977.


He caused quite a stir, and essentially rewrote collegiate curriculum on leadership. The only problem is, the distinctions he made between leaders and managers haven’t been integrated into our business and organizational cultures. The result is that in times of chaos, crisis and massive transformation, organizations who by all rights should be able to regroup, refocus and rebound, are struggling.


The Difference Between Leading and Managing


As Professor Zaleznik stated:

Management is about coping with complexity. While Leadership, is about coping with change.

But what does this look like in daily organizational operations? Here is a set of key differences:


Clearly, managers are the facilitators of the leaders’ vision and strategy. They are the ones who “get it done” by establishing the necessary plans and tools. At the same time, leaders are the needed visionaries who not only set the course, but inspire the teams and partners to get on board and row together toward a common goal.


Both roles are vital for a thriving and resilient organization. If management is missing then nothing ever gets done, or at least it is done in a haphazard and less productive, less effective manner. Likewise, if leadership is absent, the organization devolves into a hive of workers with little or no common values, purpose or meaning in their efforts. Obviously, if either one of these key roles – manager and leader – are underrepresented, then the organization will flounder.

How Leaders Manage and Managers Lead


Today many organizations assume that if someone is a good manager, they will be a great leader. They promote the manager and ask them to lead, which is unfair to everyone involved. This method of selecting and promoting leaders almost immediately creates disfunction and frustration for both the new leader and their teams. Only a few organizations recognize that leaders require effective training to lead well – especially when they are shifting from mostly managing, to mostly leading.

This isn’t to say that leaders never manage, and managers never lead. Quite the contrary!

Any startup executive or budding entrepreneur can attest to the need for blending manager/leader roles. It is not only possible, but also required, that smaller organizations tap the same person as both a leader and manager. This can work very well – with one caveat – the individual filling both roles must be conscious when they one or the other. Otherwise, they will have difficulty balancing the two roles, and are likely to burn themselves out doing more than they strategize, or undermine business growth with lack of practical action.


To get insight into how to lead and manage effectively, or to provide leadership training for managers, consider booking one of our Unstoppable Leader Workshops for your team today.

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