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6 Common Leadership Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The authority of a leader is more fragile than we think – leaders can only lead if their team trusts them enough. Our CEO, Rachel Ong, details six leadership pitfalls that all leaders are susceptible to. Being aware of these pitfalls is the best prevention – and healthy relationships are the key.


In a Nutshell

  • All leaders are susceptible to leadership pitfalls. Being in a position of authority decreases one's ability to see and hear others.

  • For leaders to avoid these pitfalls, allowing the space for trusted people to call out their flaws, or accountability, is key.

  • Building strong relationships (both at work and at home) empowers leaders to finish well.


When asked about why leaders fail, our Chief Executive, Rachel Ong, cites Robert Clinton’s The Making of a Leader, where he writes that over 85% of leaders are unable to finish well. That means that over 85% of leaders are unable to close their careers without experiencing a significant leadership pitfall and, usually, losing their position in the process.

In this article, we explore and expand on how healthy relationships help leaders overcome the six potential leadership pitfalls that Rachel cautions against.

Weak relationships leave leaders in a vulnerable position

Being in a position of authority decreases one’s ability to “tune in” to others, according to Economist Education. Depending on an organisation’s culture, employees may be unlikely to voice their thoughts and concerns even to their direct managers. However, this ability to tune-in to others is what helps leaders stay on course and prevents them from straying into these leadership pitfalls.

For leaders to tune into their organisation, they need to intentionally build relationships with those who can constructively present what’s happening on the ground, both positive and negative. The six potential pitfalls of leadership are more likely to occur when a leader does not have these relationships.

Over 85% of leaders are unable to finish well. — ROBERT CLINTON

Having the right people around you and investing in those relationships will keep your leadership on track.

1. Power Abuse

The saying goes: leadership is a time when “your jokes get funnier.” The truth is, in most cases, it’s likely that people strive to please those in positions of power. If a leader isn’t mindful of this potential pitfall, it may change the way they act and treat others.

According to Greater Good Magazine, those who experience power either through a position or by social regard are more likely to act upon impulse, treat others according to stereotypes rather than individuality, make decisions without considering the wishes of others, and to fall into behaviour that would likely classify as rude if they were among peers. In other words, their ability to see and understand unique individuals as such becomes greatly inhibited.

A leader who is unable to see direct reports or employees as individuals has little to no relational connection with them. When employees don’t feel seen or heard, they are less engaged and less likely to have ownership over their work, or care for the larger successes of the organisation. Leaders need people around them who don’t laugh when the jokes aren’t funny; and who help them improve their humour.

Those who experience power either through position or by social regard are more likely to act rudely. – GREATER GOOD MAGAZINE

When you consider your own leadership style, how have you been interacting and relating with your direct reports? What is something you might do differently to build or strengthen relational connections with them?

2. Financial Abuse

In 2020, Wells Fargo, then listed as the 4th-largest bank in the United States, was instructed to pay $3 billion in settlement of fraudulent practices dating over at least five years prior. In 2016, it was discovered that employees were struggling under unrealistic product distribution quotas. To meet these quotas, executives openly urged them to take unlawful measures.

Employees began to open new savings and checking accounts by the millions under the names of existing clients, but using their own contact numbers and uniform pins to control them. To “maintain” these accounts, they moved money around accounts under the same names, until the original account holders began to inquire about the transaction fees and the presence of additional accounts they didn’t know they had.

For the executives, the problem was financial: if quotas weren’t met, the bank would suffer. For the organisation as a whole, however, the problem was cultural. Employees were misled into committing fraud with the approval, even encouragement, from their leaders. On the other hand, employees who attempted to speak up found themselves sanctioned or fired.

According to a study published in scholarly journal Organizational Dynamics, fraud committed on the managerial level and higher is more likely when there lacks a collaborative culture between executives and employees. In the case of Wells Fargo, the executives placed little to no importance on the unrealistic quotas the employees had to meet, even firing those who spoke up. Instead, they communicated that the best way for employees to keep their jobs was to simply meet those expectations.

Fraud committed on the managerial level and higher is more likely when there lacks a collaborative culture between executives and employees. – ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS

Things would have been very different if the leaders of Wells Fargo listened to the feedback from employees on the ground and heeded it. It would have turned the focus to solving problems holistically versus leaving people in isolation to meet goals they cannot attain.

When you consider your leadership style, how collaborative would you say you are with your team? Are there ways in which you can increase the collaboration between the executive or managerial level and other employees in the organisation?

3. Over Confidence

General Motors is one of the oldest car manufacturers in the United States, competing with Henry Ford’s factory since the early 1900s. It saw its golden age in the 1960s, producing such recognisable cars as the Corvette and the Cadillac, prominently featured in American movies.

However, because of the oil crisis in the 1970s, sales dropped drastically. By the 1980s, more fuel-efficient Japanese and European cars had reached the US market. General Motors declined to change their approach to car manufacturing, and continued to produce cars that consumed fuel at a prohibitive rate.

Eventually, In 2009, they filed for bankruptcy and were reorganised with a new CEO. During the reorganisation, it was discovered that there was a very strong employee perception that their leaders would be content as long as costs were down, even if quality was compromised.

General Motors failed to grow and develop because they assumed that their car models would continue to corner the market even as other foreign models came in. The leadership team placed too much confidence in the loyalty of their consumer base, leading to complacency and a divide between executives and employees that perpetuated this culture. Today, the current CEO has much to deal with financially, but one of her strongest pushes is for culture-correction.

Had the leaders been more open, more dialogue would have taken place. The leaders would have heard perspectives from middle managers who are closer to consumers than they are, which can help them understand consumer concerns better and provide healthy opposition to keep their confidence in check.

Healthy relationships help leaders stay humble and open. When the relationships are strong there is enough trust for honest feedback to take place. The more this happens the greater the self awareness of the leader.

“There is a strong positive correlation between self-awareness of leaders, their authentic behaviours and, consequently, their leadership effectiveness.” — PRATAP NAMBIAR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

When you objectively consider your organisation’s strengths and weaknesses, what do you notice? Are there peers or members of your team who have been opening this conversation? Is there a safe channel for employees to weigh in?

4. Illicit Relationships

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like relationships outside of legal bounds would be a potential leadership pitfall. Some may even say that the impeachment of US president Bill Clinton for illicit relations blurred too many lines between the personal, political, and professional aspects of the position.

However, these cases often involve two issues that are more related to relational failure. The first is that a promise has been broken to someone relationally and legally close to the leader. The second is that there may have been deception on some level on the part of the leader.

When it comes to perceptions, the leader may then need to face two relational questions. The first is, if this promise was broken, what other promises might be broken to employees or to the organisation as a whole? The second is, if there was deception on some level in this case, is there a possibility of deception on the professional side? Relational failure breaks the trust of everyone around the leader, which leads to leadership failure.

Relational failure breaks the trust of everyone around the leader, which leads to leadership failure.

Who among your team do you trust to ‘call out your flaws’ when it comes to acting with integrity? How can you develop this kind of relationship with your team?

5. Complacency

Kodak is a film company founded in 1888. By 1968, through its development of cameras and film distributed worldwide, they held 80% of the market share of photography and related products.

However, as the digital camera age arrived and consumer preferences shifted, they insisted that film cameras were and would continue to be the preferred instrument of photographers.

Kodak only stopped production of film cameras in 2004. In 2012, having made an unsuccessful attempt to transition to digital camera production, they filed for bankruptcy and restructured their product offerings.

Kodak’s complacency cost them almost everything. They lost many employees and engineers to digital camera production companies, and ignored the feedback of others in the industry. If the company’s leadership team had trusting relationships, they might have been persuaded out of their complacency.

What is your current vision for your organisation? How can you encourage your whole team to openly share their thoughts about your organisation’s growth and development?

6. Family Dysfunction

During the Vietnam War, the primary painkiller being used on American soldiers was morphine, a highly addictive drug. The soldiers, constantly in pain or sick, often became dependent on morphine for daily functioning.

Given this reality, as the war drew to a close, the US medical industry began to brace for what they believed would be thousands of morphine-addicted soldiers coming home. What they discovered, however, was this – surrounded by their families and friends, the veterans’ dependence on morphine disappeared.

The medical and the psychology sectors realised that the soldiers had only been dependent on morphine in the absence of loving and meaningful relationships. Being home restored most healthy functioning and rendered chemical dependence unnecessary.

According to Chris Hogan, in a talk on Relational Fuel, addictions come about when we are not fulfilled by healthy family relationships. In the same way that chemical addictions eventually impair daily functioning, unhealthy addiction to work creates an unhealthy leadership culture. There are aspects of fulfilment and security that cannot be satisfied by work.

There are aspects of fulfilment and security that cannot be satisfied by work.

Because the leader is seeking to create a sense of security and fulfilment that can only be achieved through close and loving relationships, they may drive their teams and even the whole organisation to reach unrealistic goals. They may focus only on what they want to achieve, independently of what the rest of the organisation thinks.

On the other hand, leaders who intentionally focus on their families create the environment they need to feel safe and secure. Without the need to satisfy a craving for fulfilment, they can focus on the organisation and their teams and employees without unrealistic expectations of what they can do or achieve.

Would you consider your work as something that brings you great fulfilment? When you consider your leadership style, are you asking more from your organisation than is realistic? How can you intentionally strengthen your relationships with your family members?

Healthy work relationships empower leaders to finish well.

When leaders are able to surround themselves with individuals whom they trust and are accountable to, they find themselves able to grow and develop in the kind of character that sustains effective leadership. Strong and caring relationships empower leaders to see clearly, stay in tune with their organisation, and make well-informed, stable decisions for the future.

Intentionally develop close family relationships and strengthen them. Create a culture of trust and openness among your teammates or board members. Review your leadership style and open up channels of communication so your employees can share their thoughts and insights from their perspectives. Relationships are the key to leaders finishing well.


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