Previously published on Forbes
No one comes to work with the idea that they are going to screw things up. As executives, we start each day with the best of intentions: Today will be a better day than yesterday. Today we will move something forward and feel proud of our expended energy and the results we produced. We do everything we can to avoid making mistakes.
And still, there are four errors you might be making—you just might not know it. We call them “The Four Errors of an Executive”:
1. Assuming you know more than others.
2. Acting like you are the authority.
3. Playing it safe.
4. Believing that you have to sacrifice your personal life for the company’s good.
Let’s take them one at a time and see if you are making any of them.
Error Number One: Assuming you know more than others.
Chances are, you have risen to a position of authority through both experience and tenure; this isn’t your first rodeo. And to be sure, having a breadth and depth of experience and wisdom counts for a lot. However, a kind of arrogance, or something like it, can set in.
In fact, this attitude may have served executives in the past, back in the good old days when markets were relatively stable, localized and homogenous—back when the “way we’ve always done it” still worked. Even today, though, leaders who helped create the organization’s strategy or its core ways of working sometimes view themselves as being the “wise elders.” The longer a person has been in the seat, the more this seems true.
But assuming you know more than everyone else is one of the central errors an executive can make—especially now, as markets have become more global and diverse, and change happens not gradually but continually. You simply can’t know everything. You don’t have all the answers already. And that means you need to be asking better questions. You need to move from what you understand to what you can learn from your customers, key stakeholders, and employees. Above all, you need to see things through the eyes of the beginner, cultivating curiosity and wonder at the newness of it all.
Error Number Two: Acting like you are the authority.
When a company has operated in a relatively stable market over the years, leaders gain confidence about their abilities—as they should. But these days, very few companies are in relatively stable markets. There are many things that can blindside us. In response, you may get into the routine of acting sure of yourself so that you’ll be viewed as decisive or authoritative, even when you are not sure at all. This is the trap.
Yes, from time to time, you need to put on a good face to help people feel a bit calmer. But don’t make a habit of it. Open leadership means sharing more of the challenges you are facing, not less. You want your team to be well-informed so they can engage all of their sensibilities in working on the challenges at hand.
Error Number Three: Playing it safe.
Sure, it’s scary taking risks. That’s why we don't do it. One of our clients, a financial services company, has a long history of playing it safe. And that’s kind of what you want from a bank. Their customers, historically, have benefited from conservatism. But the environment in this sector is changing dramatically as disruptors scramble to grab market share and innovate around banking technology and the customer interface.
The implications for our client? They need to be acting faster. They need to identify smaller institutions they can acquire in the face of new competition entering long-held markets. They need to stop playing it so safe. It might seem like a culture of conservatism will mitigate risk, but it doesn’t keep the big, bad wolf at the door from knocking—and potentially blowing your house down.
Error Number Four: Believing that you have to sacrifice your personal life for the company’s good.
This error has probably been passed down through the generations who valued sacrifice on behalf of the organization as a way of demonstrating loyalty. And its impact is surely still imprinted on some of our brains. Sometimes, it makes perfect sense to give yourself over to your work. It matters and makes a difference. But doing this for weeks and months and years, may be fueling a work addiction and not serving you at all.
A person who works a 70-hour work week and neglects their family and their physical well-being ultimately offers only diminishing returns to the business, because that’s all they have left. Deep down, you know this. So, how might you do both—take good care of yourself AND your organization?
I challenge you to consider these four leadership errors and how you may be engaging one or more of them. Which error will you stop making today?