9 Common Leadership Missteps To Avoid

There are many different characteristics and traits of a good leader, including learning how to recognize missteps.

The role of the school administrator is evolving from a building manager into an instructional leader. This shift is not easy, and all leaders strive to be the best they can be. Being a school leader isn’t easy and you are not going to make the right call all the time. However, you can learn to avoid common missteps.
There are countless articles about being a good school leader, but we also need to learn how to recognize and avoid missteps. Although making a misstep can be a learning opportunity, taking the time to learn how to recognize and avoid common mistakes can help you become productive, successful, and respected by your staff. Here are some examples of decisions or actions that can become a problem for you and your school. Understanding the misstep is the first stage in avoiding it.
1. Trying to be popular. Too often, leaders think they must please everyone. And worse, please them all the time. Yes, you want to be well-liked, but it is more important to be respected. Respect is gained by a leader when he/she is consistent, has clear communication, sets expectations and clear boundaries, and makes tough (and usually necessary) decisions. Sometimes, those tough decisions are not popular. I’ve found that if you keep students at the core and are consistent, most staff accept unpopular decisions if you communicate the reason. Not asking your staff (when you can) for their input before the decision is another misstep you want to avoid.
2. Not defining goals. When your staff doesn’t know your goals as a leader, they are not efficient educators and it is difficult to support you. It is difficult for staff to be productive if they don’t know or see what they’re working for or what their work means. Setting your goals as a leader is the road map for your success and the school’s growth.
3. Assuming you are right instead of working to get it right. Often, leaders mistakenly think a title and a position means their way is automatically the right way. This comes from not listening to input from other staff members to add perspective and also engage their ownership and involvement in the decision-making process. The more time a leader spends involving his/her team at the beginning of the process, the easier it will be to carry forth a decision and move toward your established goal.
4. Talking the talk and not walking the walk. Leaders must mold their own behavior to reflect what they want from staff. Successful leaders tend to be positive role models for their staff. A leader must lead by example: If teachers need to stay late, you should also stay late to help them. Or, if the culture is that no staff eats lunch in their classroom, then set the example and eat in the staff room or with the students. The same goes for attitude—if you’re negative some of the time, your staff will be negative, too. If you are a positive leader, your team will be positive. If you just “tell” others what to do, the same negativity will come through in your staff. Model the traits that you would like to see your staff members display.
5. Not providing feedback. A common misstep leaders make is to not offer constructive feedback to their staff. When you don’t provide prompt feedback rooted in evidence, you’re depriving your staff the opportunity to improve their practice. Not providing feedback also removes the boost of confidence in being told they are doing a good job. To avoid this misstep, provide regular growth feedback, focused in an effective manner.
6. Failure to delegate. Some school leaders don’t delegate because they feel that no one but them can do tasks correctly. What quickly follows is stress and burnout. Delegation can take a lot of effort as it can be hard to trust your staff to do the work correctly. But unless you delegate, you’re never going to have time to focus on the vision and goals of your school. Leaders have a busy, full schedule, so it makes sense to ask others to handle a variety of tasks.
7. Not making time for staff. It’s easy to get wrapped up in email, phone calls, data, and your own work. Before you know it, you are not available to your staff. People must come first. If you are not available when they need you, your staff will feel not supported and lose trust. However…
8. Be careful of the open-door policy! Make yourself available to your school community but do it strategically. Block out the times in your daily and weekly calendar to focus on being visible, classroom visits, the students, and your goals. Schedule times during the week for people to make appointments to see you if they feel the need. Balance time for staff but don’t lose focus on the goals of your day.
9. Meeting “just because.” Meeting for the sake of having regular meetings—particularly if there is nothing on the agenda—frustrates people. Plan meetings for a strategic purpose or to develop professional learning outcomes, not to disseminate information. Staff will appreciate this strategy and see you as understanding their needs. When you do meet, staff will be focused and ready to contribute.
There are so many different characteristics and traits of a good leader, but these missteps are ones leaders often find themselves falling into and spending too much time getting out of. Knowing the pitfalls may help you avoid them. Leadership effectiveness must result in enabling, supporting, and empowering your staff to do everything in their ability to support learning. Avoid the missteps and jump right into the leading.

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  1. Matt- Thanks for sharing this! I particularly like the first point about trying to be popular… That can’t every be your first objective… it’s neither effective nor sustainable. And what you touch on there is that establishing a Mission, Vision, and Value structure (stay focused on the students!) can become a rubric for making and explaining your own decisions. And even when it comes to “delegation” and trusting your staff, giving them those guidelines can become a sort of “roadmap” to follow for everything they do. Values can become a decision making tool to help your staff be more effective.

    That’s part of what I love when I hear about schools developing their unique set of “principles” and acronyms. Too often, though, those potentially powerful exercises can get diluted and turn into another “eye roll” if leaders aren’t consistent or don’t demonstrate their own buy-in to those values.

    I think it would be interesting to explore the process that districts go through as they start to create that type of identity for themselves!

  2. Great ideas to remember, Matt.

    Thinking about #8 – I’ve always loved our friend Craig Martin’s email policy. Email him anytime, but his email signature makes it clear when he will respond. His priority during the day is students and staff and their needs. Carving out time for what is most important is essential. I love leaders who have a ‘backpack’ office – they can set up shop anywhere in a building so they not only can be in the mix, they are also accessible and visible to all the school community.

    PS: Another fave of mine is #9. So many ways to do “meetings” now that are effective and engaging!

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Matt – love all of them. I feel like the part about communicating vision and desired outcomes is an important one (I infer these things from the “not setting goals” section).

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