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Three Nasty Leadership Gremlins to Eradicate

One of my kids’ favourite books when they were little was called The Snot Goblin. It’s about a naughty, antisocial gremlin who lives under your child’s bed. He wreaks all manner of havoc, much to the dismay of toys and children alike.

Gremlins aren’t just confined to story books. Leadership has its fair share of gremlins too.

Here are three particularly frustrating leadership gremlins you should watch out for and kick to the curb “quick smart” if you recognise them in yourself:

1. The ‘Fear of Failure’ Gremlin

Today’s complex and challenging times call for a boldness, an openness and a willingness to be creative. Yet this approach will inevitably lead to mistakes – and sometimes outright failure – as part of the journey to successful innovation. Any team or leader who has reached success has developed a healthy relationship with failure. It’s a natural part of being innovative and trying to solving problems.

So how do you fend off the “Fear of Failure” Gremlin?

  • Destigmatise failure. Whenever you and your team make a mistake or experience failure, ask, “What did we learn? What might we do differently next time?” Initiate regular reflection and review of projects, using data-driven approaches whenever possible. Turn failures into opportunities for learning and growth, not witch hunts.
  • Structure projects to allow time for experimentation. This can help ‘plan for failure’ and make it a normal part of the process.
  • Adopt a growth mindset towards yourself and those you lead. If you want to know how, read up on Carol Dweck’s compelling research on this topic.

2. The ‘Need to be Right all the Time’ Gremlin

Somewhere along the line we developed the mental mindset that as a leader, you had to have all the answers. It doesn’t help that almost everyone wants to be right, because it’s how a lot of us satisfy our ego. You know this gremlin has come out to play when you can’t remember the last time you said “I was wrong” or “sorry, I stuffed up” to your team, your customers or to your suppliers.

So how do you give the “Need to Be Right all the Time” Gremlin the boot?

  • Become more aware when your need to be right comes to the forefront – is it when you’re feeling insecure about your own skill set? Is it when you’re trying to impress a group of people? Become conscious of how rigid and closed off your assumptions may be, and question how they could be wrong.
  • Actively seek out contrary evidence to your ideas. Play devil’s advocate whenever possible. Ask your team “What am I missing here? What are the risks or downsides of my assumption?”
  • Be open and curious to others’ perspectives and avoid demonstrating defensive or aggressive behaviour when you‘re challenged. A simple way to do this is to ask, “say more about that…?” when someone has a different perspective to yours.

3.  The ‘Too Much Talking vs Listening Gremlin’

This gremlin is commonplace in leadership and seems to get more prevalent the higher up the organisational hierarchy you climb. CEO’s and “experts” need to be particularly on guard for its malicious effects. Both research and our own personal experience tells us that the best leaders are active listeners. One study showed a clear positive correlation between people’s perception of good leadership and their perception of listening effectiveness.

So how do you ward off the “Too Much Talking vs Listening” Gremlin?

  • Ask open, and curious questions. Research by Harvard’s Zanger and Folkman showed that people perceive the best listeners to be those who frequently ask questions that encourage new discoveries and insights.
  •  Approach each dialogue with a colleague always with the aim to learn something.
  • It seems an obvious one, but remind yourself to stop talking when someone is talking and focus closely on them and what they are saying.
  • Leadership gremlins are insidious little creatures and can pop up if you’re not careful – and self-awareness is one of the most effective ways to keep them at bay.

What are some other types of leadership gremlins we should avoid? And what is your approach to kick them to the curb?

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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