Foolish Things Leaders Do

By: Jason S. Chaffin

Over the weekend, we celebrated a very important holiday on everyone's calendar: April Fools’ Day.  In honor of the season, here are some foolish things we’ve seen even the savviest leaders do. We know you’re no fool. You’re insightful and decisive. You blow away your quarterly goals while keeping your company well positioned for the next few decades. Your team loves you, and you are a snappy dresser. So fill up that Best Boss Ever mug and read on, thinking about people you know who may need this advice.

Banking Feedback

Performance reviews are coming up. Bob really stumbled on his last month’s targets, but I think Gina said he did something great last summer about costs. Or hiring.

It is foolish to give feedback solely at infrequent, formal opportunities. Sometimes leaders scramble because talent roundtables are coming up and they need to have some perspective on their people. They overrely on the one or two episodes they remember, or worse, what the person did immediately prior to the performance review. This can make for reviews that are at best useless and vague, or at worst dread-inducing. Instead, when leaders make every interaction an opportunity for informal feedback (and to receive it as well), it is easier to keep people on track and doing their best work.

Euphemizing and Jargonizing

In terms of development areas, some say that Rebecca has an opportunity to better leverage her whitespace to avoid fire drills.

This means that Becky from accounting should stop playing Candy Crush every time she finds ten spare minutes if she wants to avoid working late. But if her leader foolishly gives her the italicized version, there’s a good chance she won’t get 100% of the message. She may take it as a compliment, a suggestion, or something that should get a smile and nod. Much of corporate-speak stems from a desire to avoid saying things that feel negative, either to the person listening or (more often) to the speaker. While (perhaps?) preferable to excessive bluntness, these verbal contortions dilute and distort meaning. Tact and directness can coexist. Most leaders should err more toward speaking plainly.

Assuming Psychic Ability

Jaime is so concrete. He never seems to track with my plan, but other people describe him as super smart.

Some leaders foolishly think that smart people, faced with the same data, should get to the same conclusion in the same way. They’ll communicate to their teams the context and the expected results—steps A and Z—and then wonder why they get the blank stares. A sure way to lose people’s support is to assume the audience is making the same mental shortcuts as the person who already worked through the details. The team can feel less competent and frustrated in the process. However, it is the person who expected them to be mind readers who is acting foolishly.

Managing by Template

Stacy’s a Box 9. She should take point on the dot-vote Pareto after we RACI this.

That example sounds extreme—but not by much. Leaders sometimes glom foolishly onto tools they’ve learned from their bosses or found in the annals of HBR and use them willy-nilly. Perhaps they feel they have to use diagrams and charts that are familiar to other businesspeople. Perhaps they believe they simply have to Do Something, or that these are always the “right” ways of carrying out management tasks. The tools are not foolish, but the leaders might be foolish in their application. A hammer is an elegant tool. It is terrible for unclogging toilets. Oftentimes, leaders see better results from the simplest practical methods.

Leading by Template

According to Ram Charan’s last TED talk…

Stop. Stop right there. Bright, creative leaders can foolishly flock to celebrity “thought leaders” and “disrupters” with the same fervor that others follow reality TV stars on social media. This may be out of a desire to seem “in the know” or cutting-edge (like the other tens of thousands who will be cutting edge with the same guidance). Of course, it is important to absorb the wisdom of people who have been successful and have seen more than we have. However, just like overusing a tool, it is a mistake to try to apply every lesson from a celebrated sage to the business at hand. It is best to lead genuinely to play to one’s own strengths and interests. Trying to be another leader’s doppelganger is a fool’s errand.

In Conclusion

If—gasp—you realize that you’ve been guilty of these foolish behaviors, recognize that this list only exists because we’ve seen them before. You are not alone. Like certain roads, all of these behaviors come from good intentions. You want to be the best leader you can be, with the best tools, helming a team that is harmonious and firing on all cylinders. Just take a moment to think about the potential impacts you’re having when you do these. That’s actually quite wise.

And make sure the lid to the pepper shaker is firmly attached.


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