The seven deadly sins of leadership in business

We speak regularly about values, purpose, and the importance of culture for a strategic advantage. We’ve looked at who is getting it right and shared insights about what to do when the wheels are falling off.  While there are many positive trends emerging, it seems there are also a few recurring behaviours impeding the progress of a few too many in leadership roles…  and of course, their businesses.

We cannot change behaviour until we name it and understand where it’s coming from. While I am probably the least likely person to get biblical, you’ve proven time and again that you love a list… as such I give you the top seven unproductive behaviours perpetrated by leaders.

  1. Complacency

I will not allow yesterday’s success to lull me into today’s complacency, for this is the great foundation of failure.” Og Mandino

What the bestselling author of The Greatest Salesman in the World is saying is that you cannot rest on your laurels. Or if we stick to the ‘chapter & verse’ vibe about complacency; pride goeth before the fall.

Undoubtedly, it was a great strategy that allowed your business some form of success. However, any strategy responsible for getting you there is different to the strategy that will keep you there.

More importantly, it is your people who executed that strategy, correct? You could reward them with bonuses and raises but is that what they really want? I’ll save you the research. The answer is no. Your people deserve fair pay, but more than this they want to be part of a values-based culture that empowers them to be their best. Your job as a leader is to provide this.

Your vigilance and best efforts to improve on your team’s success will keep your high performers on board and new talent knocking on your door.

  1. Extremism

The two biggest mistakes leaders make belong to either extremes of the spectrum: micromanaging and detachment. Both are fatal to achieving business goals (unless those goals include failure).

I am disappointed by the regularity with which I meet candidates who have left their jobs because of micromangers.

Every piece of statistical and anecdotal evidence concludes that this is a destructive trait. Sadly, micromanagers are often unaware that they are doing it or that the behaviour can reduce morale by 68% and productivity by 55%.  Considering no one sets out to be difficult or inefficient, my guess is that it’s due to inadequate learning and development which, fortunately, can be addressed. However, if training doesn’t fix it, this is such a ‘deadly sin’ that there’s little else to do except remove that toxic weed from your garden.

Conversely, if you and your senior managers are making decisions about your business without consulting your people, you don’t have a clue what’s really going on. CEO Brad Banducci didn’t turn Woolworth’s fortunes around by sitting in his ivory tower.

Be approachable, be curious, be firm but fair and be consistent. But above all, be involved.

  1. Ego

Leaders never take credit when things go well and accept responsibility when they go poorly. This is the beating heart of leadership.

Ego sits in narcissism and no one has ever blossomed under a narcissists; except other narcissists.

So, if you want a culture based on cruelty, deceit, and self-interest, go right ahead. The rush of talent fleeing these organisations is great for my business and suicide for theirs. None of my respected industry colleagues would consider placing a talented candidate in a business like that. Not in a million years.

Yes, you need to identify the causes of good and bad outcomes, but to analyse what happened to either repeat or prevent it from happening again, and then to either reward or retrain the persons involved.

  1. Delusion

The crew of an old sailing ship knew exactly when the tides, winds and weather were against them. If their captain didn’t come up from below and order immediate action, they’d all be in peril. Business-wise, this analogy is spot on.

Your people will typically know something is wrong before you do. Even in cases where they don’t, denying or underplaying it is the surest way to communicate to them that either a) you don’t trust them b) you don’t care about them and c) you’re dangerously clueless. Abandon ship!

Be positive but be objective about problems, and include your people in the solution. If you have a healthy company culture, your people will rally. If not only for you, for their own survival.

  1. Inaction

At its worst, this is the double-down-flipside of delusion. If delusion is a refusal to face your problems, inaction is knowing something is wrong and doing nothing about it. The root cause of this behaviour could be anxiety or it could be apathy or a mixture of both. Regardless, both should ring alarm bells.

If you suspect you have a toxic culture in your leadership team, for example, yet you rationalise that doing something about it might be too risky or troublesome, then I am very sorry you are guilty of inaction.

Inaction also extends to resisting innovation and sticking to outdated modes of operation because it’s what you’re comfortable with, it’s what you know.

There is no denying it takes extraordinary energy to modernise an operation, but if your other option is a slow death roll down Mount Irrelevant, what choice is there really? I would also argue that watching your company die is a far more exhausting endeavour than implementing change.

  1. Underestimation

Never underestimate the power your customers have to change the fortunes of your business and never, ever underestimate the power your people have to change the performance of your business.

If you forget for one second why you are in a leadership role and what that really means, you are done for.

Leading people to their betterment is an exhilarating professional choice that it is all about enabling and inspiring your people to achieve beyond their own expectations.

If you don’t give your people the autonomy, authority and accountability to perform their jobs effectively, you’ll never know what they are capable of. Worse, if they don’t feel their potential is being realised or respected they won’t stick around.

  1. Reactivism

You can’t be everything to everyone nor should you try to be. The market is brimming with technological advances, innovation, and disruption. There is no way around it but there is a way through it. It’s not by latching on to any ‘next big thing’, not without understanding the current state all your existing ‘things’.

Focus on what it is you are doing as a leader, what your company is doing as a business, what you are known for and how your people are performing as teams and as individuals. A business in good cultural shape with an in-tune leader is a business in a position to act, not react.

A business like this will usually be the ones delivering the next big thing, not reacting to it.

Every leader has his and her own distinct style and I am not suggesting there is only one acceptable style of leadership. Indeed, your personal flair and various strengths that you bring to the role will distinguish you for decades to come.

Consider this a handy cheat sheet of destructive traits to avoid. These are behaviours I have seen undo a lot of great effort by some truly great leaders. Regardless of industry, leadership is about your focus on your people and your culture. Ultimately, leadership is about delivering for today but preparing for tomorrow.

Richard Wynn is Managing Partner at FutureYou Executive Recruitment and can be contacted at or 0448 416 172.

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