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The six biggest mistakes that business leaders make today

We all make mistakes - but by realising what our mistakes are, we can make sure our organisations don't suffer, says Sarah Pearce.

As a business leader, you’re expected to do it all. You are the one who must be the most knowledgeable, the most connected, and the one with the clearest vision. You are also expected to have exceptional character and no visible weakness. It's no wonder that  Imposter Syndrome  is so pervasive in the C-suite! Many times, it is the leader’s private fears and insecurities that are the trigger for poor judgment. Other times, it stems from a lack of commitment to "always be learning" and keeping up with our constantly changing times. Here are the 6 biggest mistakes that business leaders make today:

1.       Not realising that ignorance is deadly

It would be possible to write volumes on the countless examples of leaders who have made embarrassing and costly blunders on social media. This is particularly true when using their personal accounts. Regardless their experience in the ‘real world,’ many naively treat online platforms as a safe space for thoughts and opinions, assuming that everyone in their network is on their side. Take for instance, Greg Gopman, the former CEO of AngelHack and freelance contractor with Twitter, who penned a particularly degrading and vile message on his Facebook page regarding the homeless population in downtown San Francisco. This was in no way directly affiliated with his profession or company, but the reach and impact of his message spread far and wide. There was no recovering from this mistake for Gopman. He immediately lost his job with AngelHack, and even though he went on to become a champion for the homeless, once his Facebook post resurfaced, he also lost his contract position with Twitter…while at a charity event for the homeless. Regardless your status, social media is not a safe place: it is ruthless, judgemental and unforgiving.

2.       Not managing their personal brand

Many leaders focus on a corporate brand and fail to realize the intimate connection between their personal brand and the company’s success. Positive personal branding is the mark of a leader whom individuals will seek out and develop strong loyalty to, and in this arena, consistency is key. There must be unifying and genuine elements of you across your entire corporate and personal brand presence.  A great example of this is Richard Branson, who adds elements of himself across all of Virgin’s different endeavours that reflect his humour, personality and innovative spirit. In addition, he has a strong digital and media profile that also reflects his personality. This culminates in a solid, overarching brand that is Richard Branson, and adds value to the brand he leads. Richard is a person of attraction within his own organisation and his personal reputation is a massive asset to Virgin.

3.       Letting ego interfere with leadership

One of the hallmarks of a good leader is humility, another is adaptability. Both are becoming increasingly important as our business world continues to change at an ever-increasing rate. A great leader will always put the good of the company, employees, and customers over their own ego. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Recently, a video from a United flight showing a passenger being dragged off an overbooked plane went viral. The CEO, Oscar Munoz, responded by trying to minimize the event, even calling it a re-accommodation. He insisted the action was necessary. This led to a huge PR disaster that United is still trying to recover from, with individuals around the globe calling for a boycott of the company, and huge losses showing in their stock prices. Even after a more genuine and serious apology, the public doesn’t appear to be inclined to forgive the company anytime soon. United will have an uphill battle in earning customer trust back because their leader was unwise and could not admit fault at the appropriate time. Sometimes, it’s better for leaders to step out of the limelight and let their P.R experts do the talking.

4.       Not matching actions with words

Honesty is a priceless asset and has always been a cornerstone in business success. Leaders who are trusted are far more likely to be enduringly successful. While a genuine blunder is possible, those who  have a habit of saying they will do something then not doing it will ultimately suffer professionally, and probably personally too. There is no better example for this than the current American president, Donald Trump. He ran his campaign by uttering a bevy of insanely difficult-to-keep promises to his supporters, which unsurprisingly, he is having a hard time fulfilling. Further, he insists on a level of success that data simply doesn’t support, leading some to even question his mental fitness. These actions have earned him some of the lowest approval ratings of any modern American president. Trust in leadership is made up of equal parts character and competence: the jury is out on both for Trump.

5.       Not understanding your customer base

With social progress, it is imperative for leaders to develop more sophisticated views of acceptable cultural norms. These can be at odds with traditional views in many instances, or sometimes they can fail to account for broader social movements. This is the case with one media campaign that is the worst social media fail of 2016. To connect to a younger generation of girls, the company launched a campaign inviting customers to share their reasons, “Why It’s Good to Be a Girl.” Because many of the published responses undermined feminism and the belief in equal rights to women, the campaign was a total disaster. Examples of published quotes include, ‘that moment when a gentleman offers you his seat,’ and ‘being able to hang out with the boys but still be treated like a lady.’ These messages are completely out of step with current social norms regarding gender equality, and the company faced harsh criticism. Thoroughly knowing and understanding your target customer is one of the most basic keys to business success. To get it so wrong is not only dismal for the organisation’s reputation, but a sign their leader has an outdated world view and will probably mess up again.

6.       Not understanding their company culture

Under poor leadership, it is easy for the entire culture of an organization to become broken, or toxic. This impedes progression, innovation, teamwork, loyalty, and retention, among other factors. In today’s world, the old notion of putting the company first and its employees second is one of the quickest ways to guarantee failure. Simon Sinek sums this up in his talk, ‘Leaders Eat Last.’

Though she is still the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer is at times considered to be an example of a leader who does not understand the corporate culture that she is tasked with changing and leading. Her 5 years in this position have failed to produce any tangible, positive changes despite many efforts. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving a business’s culture, the leader must make every effort to understand the root of the problems before attempting to heal it.

Don’t repeat

The perception that good leaders are infallible is obviously not true. Everyone makes mistakes, even the best leaders in the world. But the difference between the best and the "Imposter" is that great leaders look for every opportunity to learn from their mistakes. And even when a mistake hasn't been made, they are committed to always learning, keeping up with the times and seeking new ways to be better at their role. This constant process of self-improvement is a hallmark among the truly great leaders. Ultimately, these are the people who become the most productive, successful and truly respected today.

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach, social strategist and author of Online Reputation: Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age