7 Common Mistakes New Leaders Make (and How to Avoid Them)

Before you were promoted, you looked into the manager’s office and wondered, “What does she do all day?”

But then you moved into the corner office. The enormity of the job hit you between the eyes. Your knees buckled. Self-doubt set in.

And that’s when the mistakes began.

Mind the gap

When I was just 28 years old, I became the general manager of a St. Louis radio station. When I informed a client of mine — a local dentist — of my new position, he startled me by saying:

“I feel sorry for you, Greg.”

“Sorry? Why?”

“The manager before you made her mistakes years ago and they’ve long since been forgotten. But you’re just about to begin making yours. Like it or not, the two of you will be compared…and you will be found lacking.”

I walked out of his office thinking he’d inhaled a bit too much nitrous oxide.

His words, however, turned out to be quite prophetic.

Seven Common Mistakes Newly-Promoted Leaders Make

These lessons I learned the hard way. In my early years as a manager, I tripped and skidded into success but not before making some thickheaded mistakes. In subsequent years, I’ve watched new leaders struggle with some of these same issues.

I share these with the hope that you will avoid them. And in doing so, set your leadership on the right track from day one.

Mistake #1: Continually comparing yourself to the previous manager.

You’ll have a tendency to ask yourself, “Is this how the previous manager would’ve done things?” It’s a dangerous question. It keeps you from using your God-given intellect to lead your team well. You were promoted for a reason. Your employer saw something in you that inspired confidence. Step up to the plate and swing.

Mistake #2: Agonizing over your weaknesses.

Leading people reveals your weaknesses very quickly. Every leader experiences self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. It comes with the job. You mustn’t fall into the trap of second-guessing yourself.

Take an inventory of your strengths. If you need to, ask your spouse or close friend to help with the list. Leverage those strengths to lead well. Then find someone on your team who can help take up the slack in areas where you’re not as gifted.

Mistake #3: Not dealing with conflict head-on and early.

You’ll quickly learn that an important part of leadership is dealing with conflict among employees. As the new leader, you may be tempted to avoid confrontation in a vain hope that problems will simply go away on their own. They never do.

Don’t run from conflict. Address it head-on. It’s better to deal with a problem early rather than wait until it becomes a full-blown headache.

Mistake #4: Dwelling on past mistakes.

You’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes, big ones. The most difficult ones are those that adversely affect an employee. When this occurs — and it will — sincerely ask forgiveness and then move on. Put it behind you.

If you dwell on your foibles then you’ll start walking on eggshells around your employees. That is the surest way to lose credibility and authority with your team.

Mistake #5: Thinking you need to know all the answers.

Don’t assume that everyone expects you to know exactly what to do in every situation. The truth is, no one does. When a situation has you stumped, gather the team and let them help you find a good solution. A team that has offered input into solving a problem will feel a personal stake in seeing the solution carried out.

Mistake #6: Trying to be a buddy instead of a boss.

When you have been promoted over your peers, it can be awkward for you and them. You used to joke around and gripe and gossip with them. But now you’re responsible for leading them and setting direction.

It’s an awkward transition, but one that must be made if you’re going to be an effective leader. I suggest talking through the change with each person. You might say something like:

“Jim…as difficult as this may be for both of us, our relationship needs to change going forward. I hope that we can continue to have lunch and play golf like we’ve done in the past. But at the same time, my new role requires me to make decisions that you may not agree with. I’ll also need to give you direction and feedback. The degree to which you can accept this new working relationship will determine how close we can remain. Can you accept that?”

At this point, the decision is up to Jim.

Incidentally, it is not uncommon for some of your former peers to leave the company, especially if they wanted the promotion that you received. If someone leaves, don’t take it personally. It likely has nothing to do with their view of you as a leader. Rather, they probably just don’t respond well to change. The good news is that the new people you hire come into the organization with no prior experience with you. So, they’ll see you as their leader from day one.

Mistake #7: Refusing to take charge.

Rarely is it necessary to make wholesale changes immediately. It’s better to take some time to ease into your new role. But there will come a time when you must take charge.

General Norman Schwarzkopf — the commander of the U.S. and coalition military forces during the first Gulf War — once said:

“When placed in command, take charge. Even if the decision is bad, you have set change in motion. It is better than being stagnant. When placed in command, take charge.”

You’re the leader. For the sake of your company, step out and lead.

A Final Thought

Leading a team can be the most rewarding job you’ll ever have. But it’ll take time to settle into your new role.

You’ll make mistakes just like every leader before you. But as George Bernard Shaw once said:

“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.”

God speed in your new role. Lead well.

We typically learn more from our mistakes than our successes. So, what are some of the mistakes you’ve made as you’ve developed as a leader?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also find this one helpful: The Secret to Managing Employees When They Blow It.

Author: Greg Lhamon

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  • John B

    A really good read Greg.
    I have always looked at the qualities managers all have in common, or
    what makes a person stand out as a leader. I appreciate you also making
    bosses human – that they may not always have the answer. Good stuff!

    • Thanks John. Most of us don’t don’t humanize our boss because the relationship we
      have with them is professional, not personal. But behind the veneer, a human heart beats.

  • Kimberley Spencer-Popken

    For too long in my leadership roles, I sacrificed and did not ask my team members to pull their fair share. This came from 2 character flaws within me, pride and insecurity. It is possible to be both ‘proud’ and ‘insecure’. My pride came as I knew I was doing more than my fair share and as I took ownership of projects, I wanted them to be done with a great attention to detail to avoid ‘looking incompetent’. The insecurity caused me to not leverage my position as a leader, for inside my professional exterior, I was still that homely girl with hand me down clothes that was taunted in school… Part of me struggled to think I would ever be good enough, or worthy enough for the role thrust upon me.

    Slowly, I am coming to realize that it is okay to indulge in some time off, to accept praise without my internal ‘yeah, but…’. Perhaps in another decade or so, I will have this leadership gig figured out.

    Thanks for another excellent blog!

    • Well said, Kimberley. Interesting how the impressions of ourselves that we bring from our childhood can impact our adult lives.

  • Lynn Daugerdas

    Excellent points, Greg. I can particularly relate to point 3. As someone who shys away from conflict, this was something I had to learn when I became a manager. If unaddressed,conflict typically doesn’t go away. It tends to percolate, often leading to far worse consequences than the conflict originally presented.

    • I agree, Lynn. I had to learn that the hard way.

  • JILLIAN

    I really love this article. It felt like a story about myself. I became a new manager at 29. I feel like I have made pretty much every mistake on the list. It is so comforting to know I’m not the only one who struggles with these challenges. I’ve definitely gone through phases of doubting myself. I realized the more I doubt myself the more it was reflected in my performance. I have a really hard time with #6 (being a buddy instead of a boss). I was on the same level as all my coworkers and many of them still view me on that same level. It’s hard when corrections need to be made. It worked best for me to explain to them that it’s not personal, but it’s my job and responsibility to talk with them and fix the problems. I say we are friends outside of work and coworkers inside. My close friends are able to keep the two separate and not allow it to affect the relationship we have.

    • Excellent comments, Jillian. Being promoted above your peers can be very difficult. I particularly agree with your last sentence.

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