10 Barriers to Great Leadership

3 min read · 11 years ago


Any growth process includes the inevitable stumbling blocks. Leadership growth is no different.

In the past few months, I’ve worked with several leaders who were navigating significant new challenges in their roles. The differences between those who managed these situations successfully and those who didn't often showed itself in their responses to these very common blocks to leadership growth.

1. Believing that it can't happen to you

Every leader needs to be aware of things that might prevent, delay, or stop growth. To do this, you need to start with a couple of basic insights: that leadership growth is not inevitable and that certain things can stop or derail it. In too many cases, leaders are unable to figure out what’s blocking their growth, because they’re in denial about the need to do so.

2. Ignoring the usefulness of mistakes

Mistakes are necessary for growth. They are signposts on the learning journey. I worked with a client who was experiencing a series of difficult and upsetting events, and he wanted to move past them as quickly as possible. When you find yourself feeling low about your leadership, don’t push it into the background. Rather, embrace the opportunity for growth, reflect on how to avoid similar potholes in the future, and learn how to scramble out of the next pothole a bit more adroitly.

3. Refusing help

We all need help in order to learn. For a variety of reasons, usually rooted in personal insecurity, many leaders refuse help. Use a coach and commit to your development. (An excellent resource on leader “derailment” is the Center for Creative Leadership.)

4. Not asking for the right things

Are you assuming a new leadership role? If you have a boss or a board you need to answer to, you have a limited window in which to come up with a plan and ask for what you need. A fine article by Harvard professor Linda Hill (“Becoming the Boss”) emphasizes the need to “create the conditions for your own success.”

5. Not letting your team do its job

This blocker has many names: micromanaging, control freak, inability to delegate, etc. True leadership requires the ability to create and maintain an environment where others can succeed. This means you have to get out of the way and let your team do its work.

6. Lack of functional credibility

If you are leading a functional group, you must have enough expertise in that function to be credible–especially in a new role or with a new team. People become quite uneasy when a leader does not understand the fundamentals of the work.

7. Lack of leadership process credibility

In a broader leadership role, expertise in every function is not possible or needed. What is needed is the highly competent execution of the leadership process, such as selecting the team and organizing and defining goals, priorities, decisions, resources, accountability, and options. Leaders must keep the wider view in balance.

8. Not enough courage to let go of yesterday’s tools

When leaders use less functional expertise and more leadership expertise, they engage in the psychological act of setting down the tools of the past and picking up new tools for the present. This process can be difficult. It requires courage, and not everyone succeeds. (Karl Wieck’s article “Drop Your Tools” is a fascinating study of this phenomenon.)

9. An inability to face the power dynamics of leadership

Many leaders are uncomfortable with the power they hold over others. The pressures of this responsibility can cause even good leaders to hold back from fully embracing their role. If you are uncomfortable with your higher status as a leader, you must face this unease and learn to use power effectively and ethically.

10. A good memory. Too good

Leaders need to forget a great many things. A really bad day must give way to trying again in the morning. Many mistakes by others must be treated as forgive-and-forget. Issues that can distract and misdirect are best ignored. Sometimes, the best things to remember about leadership growth are what needs to be forgotten in order to move forward.

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