A Playful Look at the Biggest Leadership Mistakes: Management by Kangaroo

April 21, 2023

Best of what not to do

Management by laissez-faire, by micro-management, or by walking around: classical management literature is replete with information about leadership mistakes. Some say that leadership, just like parenting, offers ample opportunities for doing it the wrong way – the question is just how wrong exactly. Those who manage to avoid the pitfalls for the most part, however, can make a real difference for themselves and their teams. And because self-reflection can be hard and humor makes everything easier, Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, analyzes the most wide-spread leadership mistakes with a grain of salt: to have a bit of a laugh, but also to take a closer look and find out if there might be examples that we can use for our own management style – or rather not.

1. Leadership Mistake: Management by Kangaroo

Big leaps on an empty pouch. Here’s a widespread leadership mistake for you. Whether it is about ambitious growth strategies and the conquest of new markets, introducing a new technology, or mergers and acquisitions to accelerate growth – the underlying principle is always the same (and always wrong): leaders often have unrealistic visions and set overly high targets because they completely overestimate their own capabilities, those of their teams, their resources, and their budget.

Implement everything, no resources in the (money) pouch - a classic mistake in management. Photo © shutterstock - factorie
Implement everything, no resources in the (money) pouch - a classic mistake in management. Photo © shutterstock - factorie

Leadership learning – less is more: The oft-cited “less is more” can actually help us reach our targets. Leaders who stay ambitious yet realistic and thus take smaller implementation steps are more adept at using resources the right way, react to changes faster, and thus achieve more than if they had taken big leaps in the first place. It is often the big investments that empty the “budget poach.” At the same time, you might still be pursuing strategies and projects that have become obsolete and cannot be changed exactly because so much has been invested in them.

Practical tip: Experiment, evaluate, and stay flexible – choosing your pilot projects wisely will help you cross the finish line. The magic word is “rapid prototyping.” Keep a close eye on market changes and stay open for creative and innovative paths even if your budget is tight.

2. Leadership Mistake: Management by Robinson

Everyone’s waiting for Friday. A feeling most of us know only too well: as early as Sunday afternoon, a strange feeling comes over us, telling us that the new week is looming ahead. Monday morning is pure torture, and from that point on, we just try to get through the week until Friday has finally arrived (“TGI Friday”). Countless world hits have been sung about this phenomenon: “Manic Monday” by The Bangles, for example, an 80s hit in which the band is singing the Monday morning blues and lamenting that the weekend was too short. Or “Friday I’m in Love,” a song by The Cure that rhapsodizes about the anticipatory joy we feel when we’re thinking about the weekend as well as about the yearning for being free from work. The problem here: instead of (re)claiming the fun and purpose we find in our jobs by creating conditions that make sure we enjoy working, or instead of finding a professional challenge that fills us with passion, many of us remain shell-shocked and live only for the weekends.

Drudge for the weekend – best way to not enjoy your work - clear leadership can boost motivation again. Photo © shutterstock - Tortuga Studios
Drudge for the weekend – best way to not enjoy your work - clear leadership can boost motivation again. Photo © shutterstock - Tortuga Studios

Leadership learning– a change of perspective: Once we’re feeling out of sync at work, we develop very fine antennae for anything that might not be going ideally, turning a blind eye to the many positive things that surround us. We might just be exhausted, sleep-deprived, or lacking a challenge – all good reasons to look forward to the weekend. But now is the perfect time to ask ourselves why that might be. Which circumstances or requirements have given rise to our feeling of unease? Could it be our colleagues, our own boss, or the tasks themselves? As soon as we have gained more clarity in this nebulous state of mind, it becomes much easier to take concrete measures to change the status quo for ourselves or our employees. More than anything, people crave recognition for their work and wish to put their strengths to use.

Practical tip: Feedback, praise, or recognition for a job well done as well as distributing tasks within the team according to skills instead of job descriptions can greatly contribute to making everyone feel appreciated, also making sure that no one is feeling under- or overwhelmed. It can also be helpful to raise certain questions together as a team, for example how the work week, the scope of work, or the workplace should be designed in order for everyone to feel good. At the same time, it is important to identify strains, stress, or negative pressure to be able to do something to alleviate them.

3. Leadership Mistake: Management by Darwin

Only the strong survive. Even though we know that Darwin didn’t necessarily have the strongest people in mind when he talked about the “survival of the fittest” but those who have the best skills at adjusting, we can still often see bosses who pit their employees against each other, leave them to their own devices, promote the “winners” (irrespective of whether the outcome of a dispute is beneficial or in the interest of the company), and bench the “losers.” Leaders like that tend to chalk up praise for themselves, ignore criticism, and elegantly pass off mistakes to others.

Would Darwin have been a good leader? Survival of the fittest is rather out of place in today's business. Photo © pixabay - Andrew Martin
Would Darwin have been a good leader? Survival of the fittest is rather out of place in today's business. Photo © pixabay - Andrew Martin

Leadership learningfrom “EGO” to “WE GO:” If, as a manager, you’re aiming at getting rid of your employees, Darwin’s principle is the ideal manual. In the long run, promoting rivalry will backfire, though: employees will naturally zero in on tasks and opportunities that will help them appear in a better light than other members of their team. Whether this is a smart strategy right now, what with the shortage of skilled workers and the employees’ market, is anyone’s guess. Responsible leadership means to actively promote employees and support them in developing together with the whole team and the organization.

Practical tip: Modern leaders instinctively know that their employees are different and thus have diverse needs and visions. That is why their leadership style is focused on people’s strengths. They overcome their natural human urge to be driven by sympathy (or antipathy) and treat all their employees in a fair and transparent manner. What is more, they have enough courage to admit to their own mistakes, to concede that to err is to be human, and to consider mistakes as opportunities from which they can learn together with their employees.

4. Leadership Mistake: Management by Chiming in

Everyone is adding their two cents, no matter what. A famous hypothesis by the Italian Vilfredo Pareto says that, on average, 80% of any task could be completed with only 20% of the overall effort. This is especially true when it comes to translating theory into practice: many leaders absolutely have to add their two cents – even if there’s no need, true to the motto “Everything has already been said, but not by everyone.” This is their way of trying to get the attention focused on themselves; it is thus about recognition, for one thing. For another, it is about perfectionism: solutions that are not 120% fail-proof are a thorn in the sides of managers like that.

You do not need my 2 cents? – Here they are anyways! That’s Management by chiming in. Photo © pixabay
You do not need my 2 cents? – Here they are anyways! That’s Management by chiming in. Photo © pixabay

Leadership learning – letting others shine:In many instances and decisions, there is no right or wrong as there would be in mathematics, for example. An idea that one person favors does not necessarily have to agree with another. Keeping that in mind, leaders should strive to let their employees shine and support their ideas and projects – even if, in all likelihood, they would have chosen another path to get there.

Practical Tip:you don’t have to have the last word, the best idea, or an answer to everything. And this doesn’t only take the pressure off; it also feels good for everyone involved.

5. Leadership Mistake: Management by Rocking Chair

Always on the move but never getting anywhere. This phenomenon (common among leaders) is, to a certain extent, a form of feigned industriousness. These leaders keep demonstrably busy, hopping from one thing or meeting to another. But their busy appearance usually hides a certain lack of strategy, incompetence or wrong focus, and the wrong priorities. The result: despite huge work efforts and motivation, you and your company are treading water and nothing really gets done – apart from keeping up the appearance that everybody is busy doing stuff.

Being on the move, does not necessarily mean to get forward. Photo © shutterstock – Image Source Collection
Being on the move, does not necessarily mean to get forward. Photo © shutterstock – Image Source Collection

Leadership learning – doing the right things instead of doing things right: or in other words, to quote an Austrian lobbyist: Remind me again what my output was?

We still live in a society kept prison by the belief that performance is intrinsically linked with physical presence: only those present at the office (so everyone can see what they’re doing) are accomplishing something. One reason why leaders often feel the urge to be everywhere at once is their fear of missing out. Another is their worry that others might think they’re not working as hard as they should.

The result: we do things all the time, but often not the right things.

Practical Tip: As a leaders, you don’t need to be involved in every little detail and don’t have to be aware of everything that’s going on all the time. However: you do need to keep in mind the big picture to understand (usually complex) connections and to know who to turn to for which information at which point in order to make the right decisions.

6. Leadership Mistake: Management by Graveyard Groundskeeper

Surrounded by lots of people but no real contact to any of them. From a certain management level upwards, leading large teams is a fixed component of the job description. Much like a graveyard groundskeeper, though, many are completely disconnected from the people around them, doing nothing to keep communication structures and channels into the organization alive and open because they suffer from the misconception that after having reached a certain level, communication is no longer their job but that of the department head or team leader. The question for leaders of large teams is how they can still manage to maintain contact with each and every employee – eye to eye and on an emotional level. Something that is, of course, much easier in small, hand-picked teams.

An absent leader can lead to decaying communication and motivation - presence is key. Photo © shutterstock - Sandy Morelli
An absent leader can lead to decaying communication and motivation - presence is key. Photo © shutterstock - Sandy Morelli

Leadership learning – fostering a true open-door policy: Employees most appreciate and respect managers who are present, authentic, and approachable. The famous open door and constantly open ear are decisive in this because they signal honest interest and openness toward the people in the organization. Leaders need this contact with their teams (and not just their direct reports) because otherwise, they will never know what is happening in the organization, what the customers want, or how the market is changing.

But also employees get the chance to grow as a team, to develop, and to receive feedback and appreciation. Retreating to one’s office and working on strategic issues might seem like a logical choice for many leaders, but unfortunately, it is a completely wrong strategy.

Practical Tip: Especially big teams require an individual and situation-oriented leadership style. This, by the way, dovetails with one of the megatrends that companies and our society are currently experiencing: individualization. To deal with this trend, companies should form smaller teams, making sure that everybody in the organization has someone to talk to. Another benefit: the management positions thus created open up completely new career paths, which will positively impact the company and its employees. 

7. Leadership Mistake: Management by Lemon Squeezer

Up the pressure: if you want results, you just need to squeeze hard enough. Welcome to the 21st century, and welcome to New Leadership. It is a sad fact that some managers are still clinging to hierarchical structures, a clear chain of command, and pursuing fixed work processes, instead of trusting in their team’s flexibility, innovation, cooperation, and self-responsibility. Trust, but verify. And much in the same vein, they are convinced that if you apply enough pressure, you will make your employees go that extra mile.

Pressure works well for squeezing lemons, not so much for employee performance. Photo © shutterstock - NDanko
Pressure works well for squeezing lemons, not so much for employee performance. Photo © shutterstock - NDanko

Leadership learning – verify, but trust: Managers who are controlling are often insecure or scared of making mistakes or losing sight of the big picture. They are wrongly convinced that most risks can be avoided if you just apply enough control measures and pressure. But that’s just not true. Good leaders are convinced that trust, transparency, participation, and passing on responsibilities don’t equal less power but – quite the contrary – more acceptance, enthusiasm, and commitment on the part of their employees, directly translating into more success for their company.

8. Leadership Mistake: Management by T.E.A.M.

The Easiest Assignment for Me. A strategy admittedly not just common among leaders. Delegating is per se a central duty of managers. It is the only way they can focus on their strategic tasks. It can turn into a problem, however, if a manager delegates everything and has a myriad of ideas and good advice for others without ever actively participating in what’s happening. This way, it might seem to their employees as if they weren’t ready to apply themselves to the work that needs to be done. Employees then might feel they’re not getting enough support, resulting in a loss of trust among the team, with devastating effects on commitment and motivation.

Always shifting tasks to other people, to doing anything yourself, does not lead to success - neither for managers nor for employees. Photo © shutterstock - nullplus
Always shifting tasks to other people, to doing anything yourself, does not lead to success - neither for managers nor for employees. Photo © shutterstock - nullplus

Leadership learning – everybody counts: Very often, good leaders are described by their employees as people who are not above pitching in, no matter how basic the task at hand. And that is exactly what makes a team successful: having a common goal. All tasks are (necessarily) distributed among all members of the team, including the manager. What isn’t helping here is a know-it-all attitude and knee-jerk commandeering.

People need to realize that everyone in the team plays a central role on their common path to a goal, and they need to trust that everyone is pulling together to get there. Leaders who believe that they alone are responsible for the successful achievement of a goal don’t appreciate the contribution others are making. They will lose the trust and commitment of their employees, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, because they will then feel that their (wrong) assessment has been confirmed and that they’re the only ones performing.

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