Nine Foolproof Ways to Fail In Your New Leadership Role

Congratulations, you’ve just gotten a new leadership position!

It’s your first time leading people and/or having a project all your own. Managing people is challenging and delivering on goals is a lot of pressure. If you REALLY want to blow it and make sure you’re never given this level of responsibility again, I’ve got nine foolproof strategies for you.

(Or, get your leadership career started right by doing the opposite.  Your call.)

I’ve gathered these strategies from extensive experience. I served in the Marine Corps and saw lots of good (mostly experienced NCOs) and bad (mostly newly minted officers) leaders. I worked in small business with and for successful businesses and failed starts.

As a teacher, I worked with almost a dozen principals with mixed results. For the last ten years, I’ve identified, supported, and developed new school principals and program leaders. I’ve seen amazing starts and spectacular failures.

Working for a great leader is a huge benefit. Yet, I’ve probably learned more about leadership by keenly observing the bad leaders, the failures, the ones who seemingly do everything wrong.

Here is that learning distilled that down into nine foolproof ways to fail in a new leadership role. Do a few of these together and you’ll certainly get to go back to a zero responsibility role. Do ALL of them and they’ll write you into the history of spectacular leadership flameouts.

1. Pretend to Know Everything

Fake it ‘till you make it, right?

Nothing builds confidence like a brand new leader that can answer any question instantly. Even if the answer is completely wrong.

Your content experts won’t see through a newbie faking it in their area of expertise. No one will notice if what you say is completely wrong or you have to backtrack it in three days.

If they do what you say and it doesn’t work, they’ll assume they messed up. It’s important to pretend you know everything. Otherwise, you’re admitting failure and weakness right out of the gate.

Reality: In a new leadership position, we desperately want to prove we belong in the role by knowing everything immediately. Don’t fall into that trap – it backfires every time.

Instead, remember these two incredible phrases:

  1. “I’m not sure about that. Let me find that answer and get back to you.” (Then make sure you do.)
  2. “You’ve got a lot of experience in this area. What do you think?”

2. Delegate Your Budget to Someone Else

You probably have a budget to manage in your new leadership role. Money? Yuck.

Make sure you let someone else pay attention to that for you. Just look for someone who has a desk and spreadsheet. If you’re a school principal, the school secretary is perfect for this.

If you only have a vague idea of what you have to spend you can promise things to people even when the budget doesn’t support it.

You might get to fire someone who steals from the company!

If you run out of money, go over budget, or fail to deliver on the project, you’ve just set yourself up perfectly. You can blame someone else for mismanaging the money or even blame those damn higher-ups for not giving you enough!

Reality: In any leadership position, knowing the budget is key. You are responsible for the good financial controls and making the best choices available with the resources you have.

If you don’t have enough budget experience, it’s okay to ask one of your direct reports who do. (See #1) You can also reach out to the business office or seek additional professional training. Whatever you do – make sure you pay attention to the money.

3. Make Being Liked Your Primary Goal

Do you know what people really appreciate? A leader who desperately needs to be liked.

When people say a leader needs to connect with staff, they mean that everyone should be your BFF. Maybe they’ll even give you friendship bracelets.

Nothing builds respect and confidence like knowing the person in charge of making hard decisions will avoid any choice that might upset someone. People will line up to work for you if you can just make everyone like you. You definitely won’t see all your competent staff desperately running away.

Reality: Being in a leadership role means making unpopular decisions sometimes. In the most extreme cases of military leadership, it can mean potentially sending people to their death. Hopefully, that’s not true in your new leadership role.

It’s important to practice empathy and to connect with staff. Worse than desperately needing to be liked is actively working to be disliked. But, you need to be able to make the best decision for the organizational goals – even when that decision is unpopular. This takes planning and practice. Connect with a leader whose handling of hard conversations you admire.

5. Tell Everyone Exactly What They Want To Hear

This is a close cousin to #3, but a really awful leader can also do this one from a totally manipulative standpoint. If you are a master of listening and can determine exactly what each staff member (or your boss!) wants to hear, you can just say exactly that. Even if it’s untrue!

People will be so happy that you’ve told them exactly what they needed to hear, they absolutely won’t talk to other team members and find out you said the opposite fifteen minutes before.

With this strategy, you’ll be able to end potentially challenging conversations in record time! You’ll never have to work through uncomfortable moments or deal with an upset colleague. That’s worth the total irrevocable loss of trust that results.

Reality: Act with integrity. Don’t tell someone what they want to hear unless it’s actually true.

Also, don’t use ambiguous language or only share the positive. People deserve to know the reality, even when it’s hard. As Brene Brown says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

Young kids are masters of telling it like it is. If an eight-year-old can do it, so can you. Just do it with more tact.

5. Dodge ALL the Blame

What is the BEST way to make sure you are personally successful? Never let yourself get linked to anything bad! How can it fail?

I already mentioned one great way to do this in strategy 2. Did you overspend your budget? Your assistant didn’t track it well!

Make sure you take similar steps in every facet of the job.

  • Project late? You weren’t given the resources to deliver on time!
  • Total project failure? Lazy, incompetent staff!

You will absolutely be given another chance even if your first one is a total and complete disaster. It wasn’t your fault!

Reality: You are responsible for every aspect of the program, project, or unit you manage. Any mistake or failure is ultimately your responsibility. No one else’s.

Any qualified competent boss will see it that way. You might as well demonstrate integrity by owning it and acting accordingly. Even if the slip-up was a team member’s fault, own it in public and then have a private conversation.

You will be amazed at how quickly this approach builds respect and morale. It’s sadly far too uncommon.

6. Tell Everyone How Hard Your Job Is

Is one of your direct reports talking about how hard a task you’ve given him is? Really connect by explaining, in great detail, the enormous pressures you’re facing. In particular, talk about how late you work, how little you sleep, and how stressed YOU are by the job. Commiseration!

People really care about the struggles of the person newly appointed to lead them. This is doubly true if the person got promoted over them, or is paid more despite less experience.

Reality: No. One. Cares. Honestly. It’s a hard reality, but if you are in a leadership role people don’t care if your job is hard. They consider it part of the price you pay for higher wages and greater career prospects.

This doesn’t mean you can’t empathize and connect. It just means that you can’t do so by talking about how difficult your job is. This is not reassuring, inspiring, or connective. Trust me.

Instead, do the hard work without complaint. People will appreciate it and be more likely to follow your model.

7. Talk About How Impossible the Team Mission Is

People are really motivated when they hear their new leader list all the barriers to reaching the team’s goal. Detail the obstacles, then challenge them to reach the goal by telling them emphatically that they can’t!

Develop and ship a new project by next quarter? No way you can do that with the current design flaws, production challenges, and employee absenteeism. (Good work, setting up that future blame strategy from #5 here!)

Get the kids in your new school to read proficiently? Impossible given the neighborhood they come from, the state funding, and stupid federal rules.

Take that mission objective? It’s too heavily defended, you don’t have air support, and everyone will die trying! (Whoops, this might actually work for Marines…)

It’s a foolproof way to motivate your team by explicitly demotivating them and discouraging them from achieving the goal. At least no one will be surprised when you fail.

Reality: People need to believe they can be successful. Acknowledge challenges and express optimism the team can overcome them.

Don’t go too far and pretend everything is fine or easy when it isn’t. Instead, list the barriers then explain how you will work through them.

8. Constantly Remind Everyone You Are The Boss

I can’t express how much experienced, competent, dedicated employees love to hear a newly minted leader talk about positional authority.

Don’t bother working collaboratively, talking about shared mission, or using group input processes. Definitely, do not defer to the hard-earned expertise of others. Instead, just end most conversations with, “I’m the boss.”

If you really want to go for it, tack on “…so you have to do what I say.”

If you see eyes roll and experience sudden discomfort, just chuckle and pretend it was a self-deprecating joke. They totally won’t notice and think you’re a jerk. Besides, who cares if they do? You’re the boss, they have to do what you say.

Reality: Use positional authority sparingly. Inspire, motivate, supervise.

Real leaders don’t need to remind everyone that they’re in charge – they assume it and demonstrate competence, confidence, and multiple motivation strategies.

Don’t accept insubordination or let poor behavior continue, but realize that outside of the military (and often even inside) rank is the most fragile form of leadership.

9. Take ALL The Credit

I opened with a great one, but saved the best for last! Every time your team gets a W on the board, make sure everyone knows it was because of you.

Issue communications or press releases about your fantastic leadership leading to 10x results. People love Xing things these days so get your name on that as often as possible!

Proclaim that you inspired your direct report’s breakthrough idea with skilled coaching. Even better, just outright claim that it was your idea in the first place!

As your reputation with other clueless leaders grows and you climb that heartless corporate hierarchy, your staff will adore you further. They’ll be glad to have their hard work used for your own personal advancement. No one will resent you for taking their life’s work and using it to get a better office.

You absolutely won’t be known as the egomaniacal self-promotional prick that no one wants to work for.

Reality: You WILL become known as the egomaniacal self-promotional prick that no one wants to work for.

Good people will not join your future teams. You will attract other sycophantic self-promoters.

If this strategy does work, you’re in a crappy organization and will eventually have it happen to you as well. Short term gain, long term pain.

Here’s the truth – our culture always gives leaders the credit for the success, whether they actively claim it or not. Do yourself, and most importantly your hard-working staff, a favor and actively give credit to others.

Genuinely say, in the face of every success, “It wasn’t me. It was my team, I just supported them and got out of their way.”

Give credit for the brilliant idea to the person or team that was actually brilliant!

Your team will appreciate it. And you’ll probably get the credit anyway. At worst, you’ve made the world a bit more bearable.


There you have it – the nine foolproof ways to emphatically fail as a new leader! While I can’t ensure failure, adopting these will go a long way to getting you there.

Hopefully, you actually want to be a great leader. Maybe you hope to build your own career while treating others well and ensuring they benefit from their time working with you. If so, ignore the nine foolproof ways to fail and do their opposites instead:

Positive Strategies to Increase Your Chances of Success

  • Acknowledge what you don’t know, and learn it quickly.
  • Know your budget. Monitor it closely.
  • Make the hard decisions even if others might not like them.
  • Tell people the truth, not what they want to hear. Clarity is kind.
  • Accept blame quickly and gracefully. Discuss underperformance in private.
  • Do the hard work without complaint.
  • Acknowledge challenges. Express optimism that you can overcome them. Share strategies to do so. Give your team hope.
  • Use positional authority sparingly, if ever. Instead, learn multiple leadership strategies and lead with quiet confidence.
  • Give credit generously. Never accept credit for the accomplishments of others.

A leader who does these things will be admired, respected and most importantly – successful.

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