The Biggest Mistakes Team Leaders Make

Go into almost any company and ask employees what annoys them most about the leaders in charge, and the list is remarkably consistent. love this Harvard Business Review video,The Biggest Mistake a Leader Can Make. If you watch it, my guess is you’ll be singing right along.

In fact, you may even think:

See that! I’m a great leadership thinker too. I would fit right in on that video.

Which is why I’m inviting you to play along with our next crowd-sourced adventure: A look at the biggest mistakes team leaders make.

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”
~ Tallulah Bankhead (YouTube)

The team leader’s job is arguably the toughest job in most companies and organizations. Team leaders operate under constant pressure- up-down-and sideways- coupled with limited control. Just as the HBR crowd found remarkable consistency in the biggest mistakes leaders make at the top, I’ve found similar consistency with the mistakes team leaders make at the front line. It’s not the same struggles that happen in the leadership stratosphere, the pressures vary and so do the mistakes. Here’s a few that come to mind. What would you add?

The Biggest Mistakes Team Leaders Make

  1. Under-communicating the big picture – People don’t understand WHY they are being asked to do what they do. The team yearns for meaning to inspire their work.
  2. Failure to identify a galvanizing goal – Teams need to know that THEY can make a difference based on their actions. It’s a mistake to think that the company’s mission will be enough to rally the team at a local level.
  3. Over-telling – If leaders keep giving away the answers, they’ll keep asking, and you’ll have one brain at work instead of ten. Ask more questions. Leverage each team members’ strengths to cull-out their leadership. Encourage them to work together and support one another.
  4. Avoiding the tough Conversations – It’s easy to look the other way or to let poor performance slide. Not telling people the truth will hurt your results, drag down the team, and stagnate growth.
  5. Lack of Connection – Too many team leaders get scared off by the HR warnings about not getting too close to their team. They manage them like employees instead of connecting as humans. Always err on getting to know your team and how they roll. Sure you should be careful of hanging out with them as traditional friends, but ensure your conversations are real and heartfelt. Your team will connect with customers and the work that they do if they are first connecting with you and with one another.
  6. Succumbing to gravity – Team leaders can’t change everything but they can change some things. Your job is to remove roadblocks. If something feels stupid, it probably is. Do what you can to manage up and sideways to make your team’s job easier.
  7.  Short-Term Focus – It’s always urgent, and there’s never time for the long-term investment in people and processes that will impact the business. This can work for a week or so, but beyond that, you’re doing substantial long-term damage to your team. Ensure every day includes real work toward longer-term goals.
  8. Accepting What Is – Leaders see what’s possible. It’s easy to get caught up in the way we’ve always done things, particularly if you have a formula that works. If you’re creating break-through results and turning heads, slow down, look around and talk with your team about what you could be doing differently.
  9. Your Turn
  10. Your Friend’s Turn (please pass along and ask others to help

FREE Winning Well Resources

You can download your free Winning Well toolkit and facilitator’s guide here.

Posted in Career & Learning, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Adjusting with the cultural behavior of your audience is one of the powerfull attitude of a leader particular when he or she is dealing accross the word with different nationalities. Interacting often with your team can be seen as a weakness in some countries where people need more to be directed and see the leader as the one who will , at the end , provide solution of any incoming problem.
    Cultural differnces is a big issue also when you are dealing with some people from the country that use to have the colonial power of your orginated country.

    • Rokhaya, You raise some very important points here. I am certainly coming from a US bias. I’m curious do you see this evolving at all in your country?

  2. What a fantastic idea. I believe very firmly that our greatest weaknesses are the flip sides of the coin of our strengths. I am a fairly natural encourager, and a positive person. So, I tend to shy away from constructive criticism. I want to maintain morale. this is especially true in the non profit world, because I know no one is getting paid adequately.

    • Bill, Thank you. I so agreed that our weaknesses are the flip side of our strengths…

  3. Great points, Karin and I especially like #1- not telling the team the “why” or big picture. I have seen this derail many a team going through change or transition.

    I would add not taking the time to coach or mentor their team members to help them grow in their careers may be a big mistake for team leaders. In working with younger leaders, I find there is an incredible desire to understand their career paths and whether or not they are moving in a direction that will get them where they want to go. Asking empowering questions and listening to what passions they may have could be just the motivation needed for higher performance.


  4. I think lack of humility and understanding that the best leaders serve. The ability to know the “why” factor and “purpose” for what you do is important.

  5. What a great idea, Karin! I love the idea of a collaborative eBook on the biggest mistakes team leaders make!

    I’m thinking you’ve been a collaborative project or two that will bring lots of ideas to mind!!!!!

  6. Team leaders struggle when they dictate the path instead of keeping the team focused on the goal. Drafts come back red-lined left and right, people feel micromanaged and all choice, trust and empowerment is removed from the equation. Team leaders need to be strict with the WHAT and flex on the HOW.

    Great list, Karin!

    • Alli, Excellent. That’s going in the book for sure. I’m working on the micro-management post first 😉

  7. A great idea for a collaborative book Karin.

    I would add one mistake that many leaders, including myself, make on a regular basis. That is selfishness. It is the thinking that people should always subscribe to my way as I have the vision and big picture sorted out. This happens especially when a leader doesn’t want to get out of their comfort zone.

  8. Great post Karin and great insights from all of the contributors as well. (I kept wishing for a thumbs up button!)

    Not knowing or owning your own weaknesses.
    Then not hiring or unleashing people that have gifts you don’t.
    Not knowing or unleashing the strengths of the people on the team.

  9. Hi Karin. I would add that team leaders have get too focused on the content (tasks, work, activities) of the team rather than paying attention to the process (how the team is functioning, team dynamics, morale, etc.). It’s important for team leaders to be able to mentally step outside the daily activity of the team (the “what”) and improve the “how.”

    • Randy, Thanks. I so agree. Stepping back and improving “how” can make all the difference.

  10. One Mistake I’d add is not connecting each person’s role to gaining/retaining customers. It is about helping people see the meaningfulness of their role vs. just a job. Leaders need to help everyone see the impact of what they do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.