Five mistakes guaranteed to derail your career

Even leaders with a successful track record can fail. Usually that's because they have bad habits that can derail them unknowingly. Leadership coach John M. McKee cites five common leadership mistakes to avoid.

I've had a successful career.  I've outlasted a lot of people who started at the same time I did.  And, I make a lot of money.  It boils down to this - I succeed because I behave in a certain way.  Anyone else who wants to be successful only needs to follow my example.  Just do what I do."

The guy who said that was wrong.  Simply copying his behavior would have been exactly the wrong thing.  I'll explain why in a minute, but before that I want to share five approaches and tactics that, if you're serious about your career, you need to avoid:

1. Always chasing the brass ring: Many execs, and companies as well, are constantly looking for a big win.  When they find these "awesome opportunities" they throw resources at them in the hope that this success will fix a lot of existing mistakes and problems.

However, while going after the brass ring, they often starve many of the smaller initiatives or operations which have been plodding along successfully for a long time. As a result of lost resources, these little successes consequently founder. They may fail. When the big win doesn't materialize — and they usually don't — the organization is left with less-effective pieces that can no longer provide enough juice to continue.  Adding to the loss: Ultimately this approach of always going for the brass ring can demoralize even the best performers.

2. Failing to spend time on the practice range: When it comes to sports or new hobbies, nearly everyone understands the importance of repeated practice to improve performance.  But for some reason, leaders often fail to practice on the job. They apply new techniques, style changes, or business approaches without the necessary testing. For some reason, many leaders think that all they have to do is read or hear these new approaches and they can they go out and put them into action. Consequently, they blow it.  At that point they may decide this new way is no good and abandon it too soon.

New approaches — physical or mental — require practice. Accept the idea that during your first few times of trying something new, you're likely to stub your toe. Learn from your flub: What could you have done differently for a successful outcome? Then try it again. It'll come. Soon it will become a part of your management style repertoire and your game will improve.

3. Failing to be tough-minded when it comes to people issues: Intellectually, everyone knows that having the right person in the right job is critical.  And yet...

Many bosses will leave a weakling in a role for too long. They often attempt to justify their lack of action ("Chuck's been with us for years. Sarah's still learning," etc.), but regardless of their reasons, this mistake can cause a lot of problems. Good people will leave, or at the least, simply become less engaged. The wrong person in the role may miss opportunities that another may have seen, he / she may create more problems because they are in over their head. Being soft isn't generous, or thoughtful, or kind hearted. It's just dumb.  I'm often told by the recently terminated that they kind of knew, in their heart of hearts, that they should have been more proactive.

4. Believing that behavior causes success: The guy quoted above was showing signs of being superstitious, never a good personality trait in an organization's leader. Like most winners, in any game, he was successful because he did more of the right things than he did of the dumb things. But he did do wrong things too. Almost everybody does at certain times.

His delusion regarding his success kept him from constantly upgrading himself, fixing his mistakes, and building on the really good things he did. Like many corporate high-flyers, he flamed out, crashed, and burned.

5. Being a constant fixer: Some people are naturally predisposed toward helping people fix their problems.  If you're in trouble, you may welcome his or her stepping-in to help correct your issue. But many times, you don't need that person to come and tell you what to do. Then, their help is seen as interference.  And it can make you pretty cranky.

If someone is thinking aloud with you, resist the urge to jump in. Don't interrupt them to provide "the answer." Let them process it on their own — it will make them better and more self-sufficient.  And, as a bonus, you may actually learn something.

On the other hand, when another individual comes to you with a great idea, just tell them it is. That's all.  Don't add anything. Because by adding, "that's good, why don't you add this to it," you devalue both their idea and their thinking. That's demoralizing and frustrating. So, keep this in mind — for the most part people don't like fixers.  Just shut up, let them own it, and tell them they're doing good stuff.

Here's to your career!


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

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