The #1 Pitfall of New Leaders

A friend recently joined a company in a senior management role, and she’s focused on the strategy.  

The one thing that she’s not yet focused on that’s going to make or break her is: the people. 

One of the most common pitfalls I see in leaders making the transition from being organizational supporters to organizational shapers is that they overlook that their job isn’t just to set strategy and “execute” anymore, but to also win hearts and minds.  Tied up in the task of “executing” and “doing", these leaders often lose sight of who they're “being” and their impact on their team.  And without winning hearts and minds, strategy and execution will fall flat. 

Authentic power as a leader comes from being so fully aligned not only with your vision, but also from consistently embodying the culture you want to build. 

A newly discovered type of brain cell called “mirror neurons” may explain why authentic leadership is so critical, and more broadly why emotions are so contagious.  Originally discovered by Italian researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti in the early 1990s, neuroscientists have found that mirror neurons fire not only when we perform an action, but also when we see someone else perform an action or express an emotion.  So if your colleague is stressed, your mirror neurons will fire to make you stressed.    

And this dynamic is heightened when there are power hierarchies.  As psychologist Daniel Goleman has noted: “In groups where there are power differences…it is the most powerful person who is the emotional sender, setting the emotional state for the rest of the group.”  

Worse yet, emotions are even more contagious if they’re negative.  Emotional explosions hijack the amygdala in highly destructive ways.  The amygdala, in the oldest reptilian part of our brain, is concerned primarily with survival.  So triggering the amygdala sets off a flight-or-flight response.  While fear can initially be motivating, researchers have found that it also limits our long term learning and productivity.  And this isn’t a response that we can control rationally since our emotions are triggered five times faster than our “higher" brain’s ability to logically understand what’s happening.  So when you emotionally unload on your team in frustration, you dramatically reduce your team’s ability to execute and learn.  And negative emotions are so contagious that it can poison you entire organization.

Ultimately, as leaders, we bring the weather.  If you are in a sunny mood, the rest of your team will also be in a good mood and more productive.  If you are in a stormy mood, the rest of your team will be thrown into a tizzy trying to run for cover from the thunder.   

So the question for you is: what kind of weather are you bringing?