It was a miracle that anyone still worked for us.  I was a 28-year old executive in a fast-growing company. I was in way over my head. I had a well-deserved reputation as a hothead and a jerk.

Three things a leader should never do
Three things a leader should never do. I have done them all and I show you how to avoid them. (Tweet That) | Share this Graphic on Pinterest | Share on Facebook

I was feared.

I was cocky.

And the lines of communication between my team and me were beyond cut off. They were non-existent.

So, it was indeed a miracle that anymore still worked for us.

The only saving grace was that there was another leader in the company who was great. His awesomeness apparently made up for me. Plus, I do suppose I had a few redeeming traits.

The good news is that, over time, I learned three valuable lessons. Three things that a leader should never, I repeat never, do.

Leadership Never #1: A leader should never dismiss anyone’s idea, feedback, or information within one hour of receiving it.

There are only two proper responses to anything a team member brings:

    • Something that sounds a lot like: “Wow, that is a great idea / Thank you for sharing that / I never saw it that way…that is great.”
    • Or, “Let me think about that”

Those are the only two acceptable responses.

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I was notorious for shooting down someone’s idea before he or she even finished sharing it. It usually started with a downward look, a shake of the head, perhaps an eye roll, and often an interruption explaining how that would never work here. I occasionally threw in an insult to their intelligence, just to make it absolutely clear that I felt superior to them and their idea really was that stupid.

Leadership Never #2: A leader should never shoot down anyone’s idea in public.

It’s one thing to shoot down an idea in private. Doing it in public magnifies the negative impact ten-fold.

I once managed to so perfectly combine these first two “nevers” that I almost brought a friend to tears. As I wrote here, I was, sadly, great at making team members cry.

This time we were in an all-hands brainstorm about new web site features and he proposed an off the wall idea that I immediately and forcefully dismissed. The look on his face and others was a turning point for me.

The years of alienating my team and bottlenecking all feedback finally hit me in the face. That moment made me realize I had to stop doing that or risk alienating my team beyond repair.

I later apologized to my friend and began a course of changing my behavior.

Along the way, I also learned a third thing that a leader should never do.

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Leadership Never #3: A leader should never sugarcoat negative feedback.

As I began to stop dismissing ideas so quickly and stopped doing it in public, I began to slip into another leadership “never.” I soon found myself sugarcoating everything and spending too much time on every idea presented to me.

Just because I was no longer dismissing ideas quickly or publicly didn’t mean that every idea was actually a good one. And it didn’t mean that “Mr. Nice Guy” couldn’t deliver negative feedback.

Team members still needed to think their ideas through before rushing into my office to share them. I still had to hold them accountable.

As was often the case in my early days as a reluctant, scared, and clearly unqualified leader, I discovered that after three years of belittling others and thinking I was the smartest person in the room, the information flow from the team had stopped.

We paid the price for it, but we overcame it. I overcame it. And I am better for it today.

Oh and that idea my friend shared that I shot down so quickly in front of the entire team…it ended up being one of the better ideas anyone ever had in our company.

Have you ever made any of these mistakes? What were the results?

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12 thoughts on “Three Things a Leader Should Never Do

  1. Bret Wortman says:

    These apply equally in the home. Sad to say I’m still learning….

    1. Tom Dixon says:

      Hadn’t thought of that angle..interesting!

  2. Carol Dublin says:

    I guess #3 is the one I’m more likely to be guilty of. Especially working with a lot of volunteers, you definitely don’t want to hurt feelings or alienate by dismissing too soon, but you are right – you can’t spend too much time on ideas that clearly won’t work and you certainly need to find ways to correct gently. Thanks for your honesty and transparency!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I would imagine that is certainly harder.

      My mother is in the same situation and fights with that all of the time.

      It’s important that they know that the reason they volunteering is _____. And that only excellence achieves the goal they are trying to help with. They signed up with a good heart. Remind them of that.

      And certainly thank them for ideas. Often volunteers are in a position where you could make some ideas a side project for them. No investment by you and no risk. If something pans out, great. If not, no loss.

      1. Carol Dublin says:

        True and good points about making sure they know the why. That’s something we are working on as a management team – better communication of why we do what we do. Definitely need to remember to pay SOME attention to the ideas but not dwell on it. Great points! Thanks.

  3. Dan Erickson says:

    I agree with all three, but think there may be occasional instances when we can give immediate negative feedback if the idea is blatantly out of line with goals. For instance, if a student in my class wants to write a paper that has nothing to do with the assigned topic…

    As a teacher, I’m very honest with my students. I’ve learned not to sugarcoat. I usually go over the struggling student’s strengths first, then I’m honest about the problems they face in passing the class. Finally, I tell them what they need to do to improve. And yes, this is always done in private.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Dan, you are probably right on that.

      In reflecting, I personally have never had someone offer and idea in seriousness that was that out of line. Some were crazy but not out of the realm of sanity. 🙂

  4. Agree with all three and have done all three. I just came across a great resource “How To Manage When You Hate Being A Manager” By Devora Zack. She talks about how Thinkers and Feelers (Myers-Briggs) give feedback differently. Thinkers are more direct, while feelers tend to sugarcoat.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Is that an article or book Jim? I’d love to see it either way.

  5. Jon Stolpe says:

    #3 gets me all the time. Speaking the truth in love doesn’t mean side stepping issues that need to be addressed.

  6. Tom Dixon says:

    I’ve made all three. It think #2 is the most damaging – there is no value in shooting someone down in front of others…let’s build each other up instead.

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