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Pitfalls of Leadership

I love our Texas State Fair. It's colorful, loud, noisy, but filled with variety. Often, however with all that variety, I frequently eat too much, get lost and can't decide where I am or where to go. I've experienced that leading can be sometimes like that as well. Often confusing and frequently too many options in different situations, I've found myself making a wrong turn, feeling lost and getting myself in trouble. Indeed, pitfalls abound in variety and in leadership!

Have you ever found yourself at the bottom of the pit that you dug yourself saying, "I can't believe I did that" (or said that) at work? Hiding in your office, wanting to take that back, because you dreaded the consequences. Or have you observed a sister co-worker make a really foolish move? Most of us in leadership have.

A pitfall is a trap or a snare that you can fall into before you even know what's happened. Growing in our leadership skills is a road that is surely filled with them. Hoping to avoid some, let's take a closer look at some common ones. Our focus is NOT the biggies (like dishonesty, immorality, and the catch-all pride). Those will certainly take you down. Rather, let's think about the subtle ones that also trip you up. Ones that probably won't get you fired, but may cause you to miss a promotion or a new opportunity. Let's use the State Fair metaphor and do a top ten, starting with number ten and working our way to number one.

10. The Information Booth—Failure to Learn . . . More

When you enter the State Fair, do you stop by the Information Booth? There is a wealth of help to get you around the fair: maps that show where the midway is, the auto show; timetables so you don't miss the Bird show; and exactly where you can get your funnel cake.

Leadership is both innate and a learned skill. Just look at kids on the playground. Someone is usually leading the rest—a bigger, smarter, born leader. Who knows for sure? But as you mature, you need to be intentional about growing as a leader. It is a skill that you can develop. It is your choice. There are books you need to read, seminars you need to attend, and mentors you need to enlist. Failure to thrive as a leader is when you Fail to Learn. . .more. Don't pass by the Information Booth—get all the help you can to improve your skills.

9. The Organ Grinder and His Monkey—Keep Your Own Monkey

Years ago the Organ grinder and his monkey were a common couple at the fair. The monkey was never far from the man and often jumped up on his back as he played music.

All of us at times will have "a monkey on our backs" which is defined as "a seemingly impossible problem that we can't solve." What we don't do is dump our monkey on someone else, especially not the boss.

My husband, who has been the boss since high school, told me, "You can tell me about your monkey, you can show me your monkey, but if you come in with a monkey you better have at least one good solution for your monkey, and don't even think about giving him to me." No boss likes to solve your problems. They have enough of their own. They like to think of themselves as a RESOURCE for you, not your problem solver. You can get advice, but Keep your own Monkey.

8. What Do You Wear to the Fair?—Failing to Observe the Unwritten Dress Code

State Fair attire is optional; almost anything goes, jeans, shorts, sandals. It's not written anywhere on any brochure what one is supposed to wear. You must decide.

Just like the Fair, you will likely encounter a place with an unwritten dress code. But there is always a dress code for leadership. In your workplace, where you volunteer, in your family, there is a dress code. Leaders don't overdress and they don't under dress. Generally, this dress code is unwritten. Discerning the unwritten dress code takes observation and asking around. Watch what the "boss lady" is wearing, ask peers if certain clothes are appropriate, and choose to dress like a leader.

7. Walking the Midway—Focused Only on Pleasing Followers vs. Focused only on the Task (2 extremes to avoid)

When you walk down the Midway at the Fair, vendors from both sides attempt to snag you to their booth, their food, or their wares. Walking down the middle, glancing at both sides and not getting captured by either is challenging.

Leadership demands both focus and balance. Are you task focused or people focused? Know who you are. Take all the tests you can to discover your bent. You will default to people or tasks depending on how you're wired. Be careful, you need to walk the Midway. Accomplish the task, but don't ignore or trample people along the way. Be aware that people need you, but don't let their needs trump getting a project completed. What a balancing act this is!

I've had a variety of administrative assistants over the years with a variety of personalities and gifts. I remember two that lived in the extreme edges. One was so people focused that I never could count on the timely completion of the task. It was frustrating and tiresome. People loved her, but I couldn't wait to get rid of her. I needed help! Another was so task focused I hated to interrupt her. Her mood was awful if you caught her in the middle of a task she was trying to finish, even if the task was for me! That didn't work well, either. As a leader, understand your bent and ask people to hold you accountable if you get snagged to the extreme on either side.

6. Take a Risk—Unwilling to Be Stretched (Beyond What You Think You Can Handle With Success)

There is probably one ride you won't go on, one event you won't do, one food you won't even try. What is it? Why? Did you throw up on the rollercoaster? Get sick after a turkey leg? Everyone is going in the Haunted House, but not you—too scary.

You won't even go there because you might fail and then what would everyone say about you? I'm not talking about counting the cost and figuring out what resources you need. I'm talking about refusing to even try. Keeping everything safe. Never taking a risk. Turning down anything that is too much work, or you're afraid of losing face if it doesn't turn out. This attitude and behavior will limit you quicker than a failure. You'll get labeled and marginalized. Take the risk, be stretched, and enlarge your plate.

5. The Carousel—Going Around Authority

Picture this: the beautiful, magical carousel with horses that move up and down as she goes round and round. Going around on this ride is wonderful and romantic.

Circumventing (or going around) authority at work is deadly. Maybe you don't like the wait, or the current decision that is being made, or the people in charge. So, you find a way to go around the process and the people to get what you think is best. You know someone above them or you just do what you want to do anyway indifferent to what you've been told. You have good intentions, but you're unwilling to let this play out the way it's going. Danger. This will always come back to bite you.

4. The Rollercoaster—Riding the Rollercoaster of Evaluation (Yours and What Others Say of You)

Who hasn't experienced the thrill of ups and downs of the rollercoaster? Certainly some are more extreme than others but those thrills have the potential to make us sick as well.

The same applies to constantly evaluating our leadership. Emotionally, physically and spiritually you will go up and down if you ride this one. You will constantly be looking back and thinking, "this time I was great" or "this time I was terrible." To some degree we're all performance driven, just because we're leaders, but I'm talking about something different from honest self-evaluation or seeking others' critiques to improve. This ride is when you feel good about yourself if you think you've done well or you feel horrible when you think you've failed. Don't ride the extremes of up and down. Really good leaders (and athletes) have learned not to ride this rollercoaster.

3. State Fair Food—Losing Self Control (At Inappropriate Times and Places)

We expect to overeat at the State Fair indulging on foods we don't normally consume every day. Funnel cakes, corny dogs, roasted corn, turkey legs, cotton candy and what else? But if you go to the Fair and eat all this food, we often go home with a huge food hang-over, regretting our loss of control over our appetite. When we eat it all, we pay.

In leadership, especially for women, there are some areas of self-control we must harness. My focus here is tears in the workplace. Men don't know what to do with tears, whether it's their wife, a peer or a subordinate. Women usually can determine if another woman's tears are genuine or manipulative. Men don't usually have that discernment and feel frustrated: either they can't "fix" you or they think you're playing them. Leave your tears at home except for when everyone is crying. A little self-control will pay big dividends in your leadership role.

2. The Ferris Wheel—Failure to Think Globally Across the Organization

You can't grasp the size, or the grandeur of the whole Fair, unless you travel to the top of the Ferris Wheel and survey the scope of the entire fairgrounds. From the top, you gain an entirely different perspective than you had from below.

When we're on the ground, or in other words, departmentally focused, we become too self-absorbed in our arena, our own island of responsibility and we frequently miss the view from the top. It happens everywhere: churches, para-churches, corporations and even the family. When I was Women's Minister, I focused on being a voice for women in our church. I think that was good. But when I was asked to have a senior leadership position, I was challenged to think church-wide. I realized then how essential it is to think globally across the whole even when you are representing just a part. This defeats "silo thinking" and prepares you for greater responsibility. Maybe someday you'll be sitting on top of the Ferris Wheel all the time!

1. Standing in line—Attempting to Push Your Way to the Top

Who hasn't waited in line for the best ride or to get a Fletcher's hot dog just to see someone cut in and get there first! Aren't we tempted to yell at them, especially if we've been waiting a long time? I mean really—what kind of person does that?

Leadership is earned, affirmed and deserved. A friend once told me "to be a good leader, you have to first learn to be a good follower." Positions of leadership are offered and one is invited into the role. You can get a job with a resume but you can't interview for leadership. Pushing your way to the top will not gain the respect or admiration you need as a leader that people want to follow. Pushing yourself ahead is a short term gain with a long term loss.

Avoiding pitfalls, an ongoing task...

Several years ago one of the Mayoral candidates for my city promised to "fill the potholes" if elected. That alone got my vote! She won and a campaign to fill them began. Unfortunately as soon as one hole was filled, winter came and another appeared. It's an endless job filling pot holes in the city. Leadership has its numerous "pot holes" to avoid. Hopefully we can avoid these ten.

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Women's Articles