3 Common Leadership Pitfalls to Avoid at All Costs

A donkey with a speech bubble talks about assuming.

Conventional wisdom dictates that working in teams is often the best way to accomplish a task. Many hands make light work, a bundle of sticks cannot be broken, etc.

Particularly with large, complex projects, there is just no way one person can accomplish everything on their own. We can’t possibly know everything, or be experts in everything, or be talented at everything. And believe me, I’ve tried.

A good leader pulls together their A team –people whose combined skills and expertise can achieve really big goals. But being a leader, and a good one to boot, isn’t easy. If you are an account strategist like me, or a project manager, marketing manager, etc., you know what I mean.

A lot of my leadership philosophy was forged by experiences in the backcountry. I’m a proud NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) grad, and have guided backpacking and hiking trips for various organizations, as well as spent many hours, weekends, and weeks on trips in the wilderness.

Leading groups in the wilderness is just like leading marketing project teams – only in the office, it’s unlikely my leadership mistakes will put anyone in grave danger.  But mistakes in the office can endure beyond those of a day or weekend hike, and can potentially result in lost revenue, lost clients, or simply lost credibility, internally or externally.

I’m happy to share with you some of the leadership pitfalls I’ve stepped into, both in the office and the backcountry, analyze why we often fall into them, and suggest some ways you can avoid them. But I’m sure you’ve never done any of these before:

1. Being too early out of the gate

At the beginning of a project, your team is often like a pack of racehorses behind the starting gate, chomping at the bit, raring to go.

They’ve received the SOW, creative brief, or project outline, and they want to dive in and get started on their work. But, oddly enough, your job as the leader is to hold them back. They’re not yet ready to function as a cohesive unit.  It’s also your job to paint the picture of  what the work will look like, what steps are necessary to achieve the goals, what role each person will play, and the ideal result. You’re selling the dream.

Business experts define the process teams go through as forming, storming, norming, and performing. Note that forming comes first, followed by storming, then norming – you’re not getting to performing for a while, get it? Allow for that. Build in time for that.

Forming is the critical stage where team members are figuring each other out and learning each other’s quirks (particularly with a new team).  This is also the stage in which everyone is generally being nice, but not saying what they really think. A leader needs to ask questions, motivating the team to open up and discuss their expectations.

Storming is where reality sets in – people realize they may not like the plan or each other; they may question the goals, or their role on the team.

Gradually, you’ll reach the norming phase – tasks have been assigned, roles defined, and goals set.  It’s beginning to look like everyone is on board. They respect your role as leader, and they believe the goals you’ve set are attainable.

Finally you can begin to think about opening that gate and performing as one amazing unit with a shared vision and goal.

During my NOLS training course, I had the opportunity to lead the first solo (without guides) trek in the backcountry. We’d had other opportunities to lead, but this was the first situation where no guide would be present to bail us out if something went wrong. The guides gave us our destination and two minutes later, I set us off on the trek.

I quickly realized I’d made one of the cardinal mistakes of leadership – I had allowed my team’s excitement to provoke me into starting prematurely.  We’d received training in map and compass reading, wilderness first aid, leadership, and traversing tough terrain, and with fantasies of Bear Grylls and “Survivor” in our heads, we thought we were hot stuff.

About twenty minutes into the hike, I realized we were going the wrong way.

Not only that, but the decision put my leadership in question, and mutiny (in the form of bickering about which direction to go) set in. We survived, but there were some tense moments that could have been avoided had I spent 10 minutes at camp getting the group’s goals in alignment and establishing myself as the team lead before setting out on our adventure.

2. Failing to check assumptions

One of the easiest mistakes for leaders to make is assuming everyone thinks like we do. Why wouldn’t they, right? Haha, hmmm…yeah.  Believe me, they don’t.

You might think everything is going great because the project is ahead of schedule, the client (or your boss) is happy, and conversions are way up – but meanwhile, your team may feel completely overwhelmed, stressed about expectations, and wanting to quit. How can this be?

You might think your client loves hearing the scintillating history of search engines on every single call – after all, it’s fascinating to you and they seem to be listening so attentively. But they may be thinking: “if she brings that up one more time, I’m going to go ballistic.” How can this be?

We are all unique creatures, with our own special take on the world. Assuming others think or operate the way we do will cause nothing but grief, and some (hopefully hilarious?) misunderstandings.

“Assuming” is one of the easiest traps a leader can fall in to, so how can you sidestep it?

Even if you think something is obvious, check the assumption.

Ask your client and your team (frequently) how things are going for them, and if they feel like their goals are being met. Do they have what they need? Is there anything going on in their organization or with other projects that you should know about? Do they feel like you are being responsive to their requests? Does your team understand your client’s goals?

Ask your client and your team what their biggest priority is. Reiterate your understanding of the objectives and blatantly ask if they are in agreement. The answers could easily surprise and amaze you. And what you don’t know CAN hurt you. People can quit (or complain to your boss), clients can fire you, and morale can suffer.

One of the mistakes I made in my debut as a trek guide on the NOLS course was assuming that everyone on my team valued speed over everything else. Why did I think everyone else felt that way? Because my friend and I both thought our trek should be more like the “Amazing Race,” where two teams compete to see which team can get to the X on the map first. We were two people out of seven in the group, but because we both felt this way, I assumed everyone else did too.

Consequently, as the lead of this group, I ran us at a breakneck pace over rocks, up steep terrain, through rivers, with 40-50 pound packs on our back, never once considering that this wasn’t fun for everyone else (particularly the guy who was recovering from a nasty cold).

I didn’t realize it until mutiny set in once again. Oh? Some people wanted to take a more leisurely pace, take pictures of wildflowers, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and chit chat as we strolled along? It never occurred to me.  How could this be? I never asked what anyone wanted to get out of this experience. I didn’t check the assumption that everyone thought like me, that a trail run would be awesome.  Humph.

3. Being too nice

This one is hard, particularly for those of us who are naturally social, as account strategists and marketing people often are. I really like people and I like being friendly – that’s why I have the job I do. I want people to like me back. The reality is, not everyone will, and particularly not those people to whom you assign tasks, direct work, or otherwise “order around.”

If you’re concerned about whether or not your team (or even your client) likes you, you’re probably ignoring something very important: the necessity of setting good boundaries.

Your role as a leader is to define roles, set objectives, plan steps to achieve those objectives, and motivate your team to deliver. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions regarding balancing the needs of your boss or client with the needs of the individuals on your team.  If you are worried about being perceived as being friendly, you’re not going to be able to do your job well.  And sometimes just the perception of being “too nice” can work against you. People may see you as a pushover, even if you’re far from it.

So how do you avoid this trap?

  • Don’t avoid confrontation. Sometimes people will test your boundaries to see how far they can push you. If someone on your team is continually asking for more time to deliver a report, or continually making excuses for mistakes, call them out on it.
  • Set a clear expectation for timeliness and quality of work and let them know what the repercussions will be.  There’s no need to be unfriendly, but setting clear boundaries can help minimize the perception that your friendliness can be taken advantage of. Sometimes your boss or a client will keep piling on the requests until you say no. Yes, confrontation can be uncomfortable in the moment, but clearly and concisely setting the boundary about what is permissible will work for you in the long run.
  • And don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault. The more you stand up and own your role as a leader, the more your team and others will perceive you that way.

As someone who prides herself on being physically strong and athletic, I often fall into the ‘being too nice’ trap by carrying more than my share of the weight on a trek.

On backpacking trips, your group often shares the weight of group equipment, such as parts to the tent, cooking equipment, first aid supplies, and food. This is generally distributed according to weight and bulk. Bigger people can generally carry more weight, so their packs tend to be heavier. If you’re willing to carry a heavier load proportionally than team members twice your size, and don’t speak up, don’t cry about it later when you are exhausted.

Know your limits, and speak up before you reach them. Being a hero won’t make you a better leader. Teaching your team members (and your clients!) how to carry their own weight will work better for everyone in the long run.

I hope you’ve learned a few tricks for avoiding some common pitfalls of leadership, or at least enjoyed watching me poke fun at my own errors. Often we don’t learn what TO do until we first learn what not to do.

And luckily I never actually lead my NOLS group off a cliff. I just created disharmony, exhausted them, and exhausted myself. And after that experience, I learned what traps to look out for in my marketing team leadership adventures.

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  1. It’s good to make mistake sometimes so you will learn never to do it again and you will be aware of what’s the right thing to do.

    1. I agree that experiencing missteps firsthand can really help drive home the need for a different approach. Mindful leadership doesn’t mean you never repeat mistakes though! Thanks for the comment, Kris.

  2. Good article. As the saying goes, never assume – it makes an Ass out of U and Me. Being too nice can certainly be a handicap, but with the right team it should not raise its head too often.

    1. Thanks, Dave! Yes, good communication necessitates checking assumptions often to make sure we are all on the same page.

  3. Great post lisa! Being too early out of the gate is a really hard one to overcome since everyone is usually pumped up and ready to get going.

  4. One important thing that I have found to reduce the time from storming to performing is the amount of pre-planning that’s done ahead of the gates opening and all the horses running out of the chute. In many projects there’s a time where you are anticipating the SOW or the project request. You know it’s coming – so that’s the time to devote to some planning and mapping out a communication plan with your team. Being prepared for the moment the project starts means you’ll be in a great position to nudge and coach the group in the direction they need to go to be productive and deliver on the customer’s expectations.

    1. Great point! It’s wonderful when it works out that way, isn’t it?! Sometimes, though, the time from initial conversations with a new client to the time they want to start a project is a matter of days. Often a new client can be the strongest “horse” to try to hold back at the starting gate.

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