John Maxwell: Leadership Landmines

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 3, 2011

I constantly see leaders—leaders who are building some of the most successful companies and organizations—get “blown up.” What happened to them? How did these individuals who have reached the top of their profession by doing all the right things, slip and fall?
They were blown up by problems they never saw coming.

What I’m about to share with you are five common landmines I have stepped on as well, so I’m speaking from experience.

Landmine No. 1: Today’s Success

What got you here won’t keep you here.

Many who trip on this landmine are those who are enjoying the seeds of their success. I have a sign in my office that reads, “Yesterday ended last night.” When I want to celebrate a great day I’ve had with our business or for other reasons, this sign helps me keep perspective and keeps my eye on the road ahead rather than looking in the rearview mirror. This sign tells me, The celebration is over, so go home, get some sleep and get ready for another day.

If you are still celebrating a victory from two months ago, you need to know that life is not a snapshot. You can’t take a picture when you are at the pinnacle of your success and say nothing will ever change. The problem is it does change. And if you don’t change with it, what got you to the top yesterday won’t allow you to stay there today.

The same goes with failure. If you had a bad day, you can take solace in knowing tomorrow is another day. The ability to let go of your successes and failures is absolutely essential. A sign of growth in your life is when what you did yesterday no longer thrills you. Not because you’re bored but because you are growing.

So how do you avoid the “today’s success” landmine? Recognize it first. Joe Frazier said, “The punch that knocks you out is the one you didn’t see.” You need to recognize it before you can avoid it.

Then keep growing personally. Growth equals change. Continually ask: Is there a better way? The answer is always yes.

If you really want to grow, get someone independent of your organization who knows your business and let them in on the inside and give you a fresh perspective. Pay for outside consulting.

And don’t protect the past. Our tendency is to be defensive of our past, of decisions we’ve made that we want to protect. Admit mistakes were made and move on.

Build on your success—don’t sit on it.

Landmine No. 2: Losing Touch with Your People

An isolated leader is an ineffective leader.

True leaders will never tell you it’s lonely at the top. If you are at the top all alone, then no one is following you. Get off the mountain, and go find your people and connect. When leaders lose touch with people, they become ineffective. You need to walk slowly through the crowd, listen to your people and open your ears to what they are telling you.

Do you know the difference between a dream and a fantasy? A dream is a big idea with a strategy. A fantasy is a big idea without a strategy.

Avoid the “losing touch with your people” landmine by avoiding withdrawal that comes with success or failure.

Value people. They are your only appreciable asset. Do this by avoiding positional thinking. Leadership has nothing to do with what your position is. It has everything to do with what your influence is. The more insecure a leader is the more titles they want.

You must understand the law of significance: One is too small a number to achieve greatness. So love the people you lead. Remember that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Landmine No. 3: Betrayal of Trust

Leadership functions on the basis of trust.

Trust is the foundation upon which relationships in every setting are built. Receiving trust from others is a result of character, confidence and consistency.

What’s the first thing you think about when you deal with people you don’t know, people you’ve never done business with before? The first thing we think about is: How much can we trust them?

So how do you become a trustworthy leader?

►  Value character more than success.

►  Focus on shared goals more than personal agendas.

►  Stay away from politics.

►  Do the right thing regardless of personal risk.

►  Be accountable to others.

►  Follow the Golden Rule: Treat people the way you would like to be treated.

Landmine No. 4: Failure to Think Realistically

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
—Max DePree

Most weekend golfers are not realistic. They don’t intentionally lie, but they aren’t realistic. The weekend golfer says to himself, If I hit this 3-iron perfectly, I can get it on the green. The odds are low a weekend golfer will accomplish this, especially since great golfers rarely hit 3-irons perfectly.

Somebody once said, “An optimist thinks the glass is half-full. The pessimist thinks it’s half-empty. The realist knows that before long, he’ll have to wash the glass.” Make realism the foundation of your organization. Build that foundation on three levels of achievement:

►  What we have to achieve

►  What we think we will achieve

►  What we can hope to achieve

Look at realism as a friend, not a foe. I learned this from Jack Welch’s Six Rules for Successful Leadership:

1.  Control your destiny, or someone else will.

2.  Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were.

3.  Be candid with everyone.

4.  Don’t manage, lead.

5.  Change before you have to.

6.  If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.

Landmine No. 5: Poor Timing

The difference between a home run and a long foul ball is timing.

It’s vital that you step back and see the big picture. There are seasons of change that affect timing in any organization. Understand that people change when they:

►  Hear enough that they have to.

►  Learn enough that they want to.

►  Receive enough that they are able to.

Above all, seek advice from successful leaders. What seems so necessary today may not even be desirable tomorrow.

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