By Anna Marie White, an instructor in our Public Relations Program


If you started your public relations career in the trenches of tactical PR, writing news releases and social media posts, you’re likely hoping to one day advance beyond tactician to manager or even top leadership in the C-suite of your organization. If you are lucky enough to work for an employer who places value on leadership development—and invests the corresponding resources needed to make it happen—then you might have had a mentor or professional development experiences that have prepped you to take things to the next level. 

More commonly, you likely find yourself thrown into situations with more and more responsibility that give you the chance to prove you have the mettle it takes to lead at the senior level. 

Whatever the path, when you land in your first leadership role you will likely find yourself tempted by some of the common snares that can befall an emerging leader. These newbie leader mistakes stem from a mindset that needs to grow into its leadership skin and let go of some old habits that are potentially lethal to leadership ambitions. 

In this article we explore five of the most common mistakes made by emerging leaders. 


Mistake #1 Defining leadership by a job title

Leadership is about stewarding your influence. It’s really that simple. Most, if not all, of us have the potential to lead right where we are, no matter what we are doing. A title or the authority to supervise direct reports might make you a manager, but it does not make you a leader. Make no assumptions. You might be the boss, but that doesn’t mean you are actually leading people. 

Ask yourself, would these people follow me if I had to lead them only on the strength of my own ideas? Or people skills? Or visioning? Ask yourself how you are earning the right to influence the people you want to lead. 

Mistake #2 Treating your team like an extension of yourself

So you’ve been promoted to team lead - obviously because you have the best ideas and more natural leadership talent than anyone else, right? No doubt your organization’s leaders advanced you over others because they are hoping you will produce more of what you have in the past when you have been responsible for managing tasks: more of your vision, your style, your magical self. 

Umm, maybe. It’s always possible you are that superior to your peers... but more likely you were promoted because your boss hopes you will learn to replicate your performance to lead a team of similarly high-performing people, all reaching their unique potential within the organization for the benefit of the organization. They aren’t looking for one high-performing point lead with a lot of exhausted or unfulfilled staff carrying out their supervisor’s vision. 

You have a team to complement your strengths. Note it is complement, not compliment. Confusing the two will lead to radically different outcomes. They aren’t there to make you feel good or boost your ego. 

Learn to recognize that each member of your team likely brings something to the table that you don’t have in your personal leadership portfolio already. Your job as leader is to develop that potential and strategically leverage it for the organizational outcomes you desire. 

Learning to develop people to their potential requires what the Gallup Strengthsfinder calls individualization: the ability to see potential in people and create an environment where it can be nurtured and developed. In doing this, you bring out the best your team has to offer, creating a catalyzing work environment that grows talent - and hopefully holds on to it.

Mistake #3 Managing tasks over developing people 

Management and leadership are two terms that are often used interchangeably in the context of organizations. In reality, most leadership roles will require a mixture of both approaches to accomplish organizational goals but don’t fall into the trap of letting your “to do” list be your priority over developing the people you are leading. 

In providing oversight of a process or team, managers might be most concerned about timelines, tactics, risk assessment and the cost of the action, both in people and financial terms. In terms of people, management focuses more on structure and staffing: making sure the people are well-suited to the work and have the oversight and training they need to actually get the work done. 

Leaders, however, go about getting work done by focusing on the overall strategic direction, motivating collaborative action and equipping the team to get the work done. Leaders mobilize people: they work to develop the people who manage the tasks. 

If you want to lead, give your best energy and focus to developing the people who are managing the tasks and find ways to develop each team member’s potential. 

Mistake #4 Micromanaging your team

If you haven’t made the switch from managing tasks to developing people (Mistake #3), you’ll find micromanaging nearly impossible to resist (especially if you are also still stuck on Mistake #2). 

Here are three ways to avoid micromanaging: 

  1. Build trust as a team. Stephen M. R. Covey posits that work can only happen at “the speed of trust”. In a knowledge economy, trust is the lubricant that oils the gears of collaboration.
  2. Create abundant clarity. Developing a clear sense of desired outcomes will help orient your entire team in the direction you want them to go. 
  3. Learn to delegate effectively. Clarity around expectations and outcomes fuels successful delegation. If your team knows how the win will be measured, then they know what the end game is. With the destination in sight - and a healthy, trust-based team culture - handing over tasks and even entire processes to your team will become much easier. 

Mistake #5 Feeling threatened by employees who have abilities that you do not

Imposter syndrome is a persistent workplace reality for many of us: it’s that niggling doubt that you are not really pulling this off; that voice in your head that says you’re a bit of a fraud, and that if people found out who you really are, you might be out of a job. 

Research shows that nearly 70% of us can suffer from this secret - and potentially toxic - insecurity. This anxiety is one pernicious reason why emerging leaders can feel so threatened by team members who have abilities that the leader herself doesn’t have. 

Instead of feeling threatened, try on a fresh coat of humility. Become a learning leader and openly acknowledge your pursuit of continuous improvement, both for the organization and yourself. It won’t take your staff long to figure out they are more knowledgeable or capable than you are in their areas of specialty so be the first to say you are grateful to have teammates with such expertise and value them for who they are. 


About the Author

Anna Marie White is a consultant in corporate communications and project management in private and non-profit sectors. Anna Marie has a Bachelor of Arts and a Certificate in Public Administration at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She holds graduate qualifications from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. She also completed an MA in Corporate Communications from Bournemouth University in the UK where she graduated with distinction and received a commendation for top performance in her class. 

  • Posted May 27, 2019