The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a Leader

I just figured out the biggest mistake I ever made as a leader.

Head in Hands

Don’t try to change people as a leader. A lineman will never be a quarterback…and vice versa.
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For the past seven years I thought it was something else, but I was wrong.

I’ve made a ton of mistakes as a leader. Just ask anyone I have ever led…or read some of my previous posts here. Ask my wife, my co-workers, my direct reports, my business partners, and bosses. You might want to block off a week or four to do it though.

But I made one big mistake that I didn’t even realize until now. One that led to almost every other mistake I made.

I thought I could change people.

I was under the impression that my job as a leader was to take lumps of clay (I’ve found that other people love being referred to as “lumps”) and turn them into diamond rings. I thought I was supposed to motivate people to succeed. I thought I could change a leopard’s spots, make the lazy be gung ho, turn the class clown into a serious go-getter, and get the shy, reserved types to be top salespeople.

I failed every time. These failures led to the tailspin of future mistakes I made as a leader.

In late 2007, I was a direct leader for ten people and one of the three executives in our company, so I indirectly lead another twenty people. We were a young company and yet the average member of our team had still been developing his or her habits and personality for nearly thirty years. So, of course, I figured I could change them in three months.

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But I couldn’t. And my frustration grew…and it showed.

What I realize now is that the nearly comatose, laid back, “doesn’t flinch at the first sign of panic” programmer had been that way for thirty-five years before coming to work with me. So, when he was still that way seven weeks later when our main server crashed and flew into this office (literally, I was airborne as I entered his office) yelling about his inaction, I was trying to change him. I was, in effect, saying “your personality is inadequate.” Take a guess how that was received.

I now understand that the over-performing, example-setting, but insanely shy team member probably had parents who were that way and has been learning this behavior for more than twenty-five years. His head-down, get the job done and don’t say much style of working was great for his department, but horrible for leadership. This is exactly how he had seen his father work and had gotten through school with nearly a 4.0 GPA. But I tried to change him, because I needed a leader. I was, in effect, saying “being the most productive team member is not enough.”

I’m not suggesting that as a leader you have to keep everyone in his or her comfort zone at all times. Sometimes people need to be stretched. But a good coach never tries to make the 340-pound lineman into a quarterback…or vice versa. He tries only to mold the shape, skills, and personality that God gave the player and make him the best lineman he can be. I, on the other hand, was trying to play with a team full of quarterbacks…fiery, motivated, bouncing off the walls quarterbacks. But in life, as in football, you need some big, bulky blockers, some receivers to catch the passes, a runner or two, and even a punter and kicker.

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Don’t try to change people as a leader. Statistically, you’re fortunate to have them on your team for five years. That is nowhere close to enough time to change twenty, thirty, or forty years of learned behaviors, personalities, and quirks.

Has anyone ever tried to change you? Have you ever tried to change someone else? What were the results?

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  • I’ve tried it all. Some big failures, some big successes. It boils down to natural talent and desire. When those two things come together, change is much easier.

  • I agree with you Matt – it’s near impossible to change people – who they are. So the real work needs to happen when you’re recruiting them, right? If you don’t like something, don’t hire it, cus it likely won’t go away.

    My Dad told me before I got married: ‘Have your eyes WIDE open before you say ‘I Do.’ If you don’t like something in the other person, decide if it’s a deal breaker before you get that ring on their finger. Cus after you say ‘I do,’ you have to have your eyes mostly shut. After the ring’s on the finger, it’s all about accepting the other person for WHO THEY ARE.

    In other words, people change – but only if they want to. Not if you want them to. Valuable lesson for me.

    Great post!

    • Aaron this is an awesome comment!

      Your dad was a wise, wise man.

  • So much of leadership turns into a discussion about intrinsic verses extrinsic motivators. Leaders are followed because of the vision communicated. A follower emerges when someone believes the leader can help them reach that vision. It has to be something they actually want.

    Overtime, when great trust is built, I do believe a leader can start discussions that (may) lead someone a direction they weren’t initially interested in. BUT (and yes, it is a BIG but), that can only be successful if the person owns it as their own idea. That’s where the discussion happens: “Do you really want to change?”

    If the answer is yes, the leader may be part of an amazing, life-changing process.

    Dave Ramsey comes to mind as someone who has built his career in this way. People like their credit cards. Dave leads people a different way but it only works if they are willing to do it for their own reasons.

    Outside motivation only works for a short season until some other stronger outside motivation (or a much weaker inner one) pushes a different direction.

    • Totally agree Luke. Dave gives information and Debt Free Fridays provide a little motivation, but the fact is that 90% of the people who hear his message still have credit cards and don’t have an emergency fund.

      When a famous person says “this book changed my life” 10% buy it, 90% don’t.

      Some do, some don’t…it’s that simple as Jim Rohn says.

  • I’ve definitely felt this challenge. About five years ago, I became an operations manager at my company. With that position, I inherited a team of long-time employees with some baggage. I’m still struggling with how to “change” them, so I appreciate your post.

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