Opinion: 5 key mistakes leaders make during difficult times

By Mark Mudford, leadership consultant and bestselling author
From failing to value individuals to missing the opportunities of a crisis, avoid these common leadership mistakes, warns leadership coach Mark Mudford...

The ongoing impact of the Coronavirus pandemic is evident across the world and many businesses are still on a lifeline. With all the fear-mongering and panic that seems to dominate the news cycles today, no one is impervious to the negative connotations that the pandemic has brought. 

One of the most important qualities of the leader during these uncertain times is to remain calm and to then instil a sense of calmness and confidence in their team. However, that is often easier said than done. 

Here, leadership coach, mentor, and consultant Mark Mudford reveals the 5 key mistakes that most leaders make when trying to navigate difficult times. 

1. Mistaking consensus for leadership

Probably the biggest mistake I’ve seen from well-meaning leaders is to defer their leadership and attempt to manage by committee. This is tempting because it’s engaging the tribe… but in the wrong way. A leader doing this is one who's actually abdicating their responsibility. 

A leader’s job is not to get the team to choose the direction — a good leader will engage the team to find all the options, but ultimately it is then the leader’s job to select the best solution. This is particularly important during difficult times, as the team is often operating under a high level of stress and anxiety…which can exaggerate behaviors.

2. Failing to value each individual in the tribe

A business, of any size, should not be one person. Success is not a solo sport. And the incredible depth of knowledge and skill sets that diversity brings are genuine assets to any business. Always ensure that a company’s sense of self is more than one person. Ensure that every member of the tribe feels included. 

This will smooth out the peaks and troughs of the business, whether by providing resilience to external components such as economic upheavals or by recognising and developing your team in order to become more resilient.

3. Not healing internal differences

Any organisation that isn’t complete, that holds significant differences in values, will always fail during turbulent times. This applies to a single business with internal areas in conflict or a larger joint venture between organisations. This can cause destructive behaviours between the senior leaders of different parts of the organisation. 

In every context that either myself, my team, or any of my clients have encountered, where there has been a lack of internal integrity — a sense of competing goals within the affected organisation — every outcome has either fallen far short, or has failed completely. I’ve seen senior managers do extraordinarily selfish things all in the name of self-preservation because they were unable to cope with a perceived threat or a challenge to their leadership. Joint ventures have fallen apart, and large, expensive projects have collapsed under their own weight whenever the parts that make up the whole were unable to resolve these differences.

4. Being frozen in time

Our current times are turbulent. There’s a great deal of uncertainty in the air. And because this causes us to seek safety (or at least a sense of safety), we often fall back on the things we’ve done before because we know them so well. This is a false sense of safety. If we choose to stick to our routines, our standard operating procedures, the way we’ve always done it, then we will miss the opportunities that come with every great shift in the world. 

Remember, Nokia (once the world leader in mobile phones) missed the smartphone opportunity that gave Apple such a strong presence in the world today — and also opened the door for Samsung to become number two with a product they were never renowned for. 

And today, because of COVID, remote working is more acceptable by businesses (even by those more traditional organizations that were previously resistant to such ways of working). This means there are massive opportunities for those who are not complacent, hesitant, or asleep at the wheel completely.

5. Neglecting psychological safety

As a leader, it is vital to continue making plans even when the future is so unpredictable. That sense of routine, that feeling of psychological safety—that you’re safe within the team—are all enhanced by a leader who actually leads. Psychological safety is paramount in keeping a team cohesive and productive.

And I’m sure we’ve all heard that old military saying that all plans are good until the first shot is fired (sometimes also said as 'no plan survives the first contact intact'). This is true.

This translates into the business world, as providing knowledge and undertaking skill development in order to keep people busy and focused and (again) give them something to pour their energy into in a positive way. But remind them that we may need to adjust as needed (although a good leader will often absorb the number of major changes in order to maintain the sense of psychological safety). 

So let the team know that (especially now) the business environment can be unpredictable, and that’s OK. Any undertaking will likely require adjustments along the way. A plane flying to its destination is only exactly on its planned path a small percentage of the time due to weather and wind shifts. 

And to extend the plane analogy, another saying we would often use in corporate leadership is to remind the team that sometimes the trick is to accept the fact that we may be, at times, asked to fly the plane while we are still building it.

About the Author
Mark is an inspirational leadership coach, mentor, consultant, and also an international bestselling author. Drawing on decades of experience in leadership across corporate, non-profit, and the military he works with entrepreneurs and business leaders to challenge everything about the way they approach their business life. For more information visit www.markmudford.com.au


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