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How not to lead: Lessons from my leadership failures

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

I’ll never forget the feeling of receiving my 360-degree feedback results and seeing low leadership scores - I was devastated. I felt such a sense of failure. I’d led the initiative to build a culture of feedback among the leadership team and here I was perceived as having done a less than stellar job at inspiring and influencing my team to work towards a common vision.

At the time, I was a new Partner in an international mining consulting firm that I'd worked with on-and-off for 18 years. I was co-managing a department of some 25+ environmental and social scientists and consulting to some top notch mining houses across Sub-Saharan Africa. I'd worked hard to get to this level in the organisation and was doing everything I could to solidify my position in the leadership team.

I remember in my first Partner meeting being told by one of the long-term Partners that one reason I had been invited into the group was to challenge the status quo and ask tough questions. I believe now I took that a bit too seriously because I rapidly set about challenging just about everything. Instead of listening, absorbing and getting my bearings I dove straight into the role of being the challenger. I'll never forget one of my co-partners telling me that perhaps I was not just fighting too many fires, but I was possibly setting fires and perhaps I should step back a little.

Needless to say with all the "firefighting" I was doing, I was working long hours, exhausting myself and it was showing.

  • It was showing in my personal relationships - if I wasn't showing up tired and grumpy, I wasn't showing up at all - most evenings and weekends, when I wasn't working, I was fast asleep on the couch.

  • It was showing up in my work relationships - some days I was full of joy and the life and soul of the department, other days I was moody - if my words weren't telling you what mood I was in, my body language certainly was.

  • It was showing in my relationship with myself - I was at an all time low on the self-care barometer - eating badly, not exercising, sleeping erratically, gaining weight, saying yes to everything and finding excuses to cancel at the last minute, avoiding friends and family and crying on the way to work most days.

I'll never forget one Friday afternoon on a 4pm conference call with a client in Canada, sitting in my office barely able to catch my breath, sweating visibly and convinced I was having a heart attack. But instead of cancelling the meeting because I wasn't feeling well, I joked to my colleague "I'm probably having a heart attack so if I collapse on the floor just carry on without me" and then laughed like a lunatic.

I didn't collapse on the floor, but I did continue to have chest pains, shortness of breath and an overwhelming desire to pass out all the way through the meeting. The next week when I saw my GP thankfully the tests showed my heart was fine, but we discussed anxiety, stress, and self-care, did a number of blood tests and she booked me off work for 10 days to get some rest.

When I write this now its so clear to me that back then I was in no position to be leading others. At the core of my leadership failure, was my lack of self-leadership skills. In the words of Bryant and Kazan, I had to become a leader, from the inside, out.

Leading from the inside out

Bryant and Kazan define self-leadership as having a developed sense of who you are, what you can do, where you are going coupled with the ability to influence your communication, emotions and behaviours on the way to getting there."

But this requires being conscious and intentional, and in the months before my 360-degree feedback fallout, I was anything but that. I was reacting on a hair-trigger, and about as unconscious of my impact as one can be.

I was failing at pretty much all of Bryant and Kazan’s self-leadership measures:

  • A developed sense of who you are: I was burnt out and had no idea who I truly was because I had spent several years trying to be everything to everyone.

  • Knowing what you can do: I was in a rut, convinced I wasn’t capable of much else and would be stuck in that rut forever.

  • Where you are going: I was flailing – I was trying to figure out my direction by grabbing on to the work that no one else wanted to do.

  • Ability to influence your communication, emotions and behaviours: My behaviour was erratic. I alternated between aggression and avoidance. Not only did I wear my emotions on my sleeve, but also on my forehead – generally in the form of a scowl.

I remember my (now ex-) husband telling me I was turning into a monster – it was hard to hear, but he was right. I was turning into someone I didn’t like very much.

You might want to read: How to survive your monster boss!

In hindsight, it’s blatantly obvious why my leadership scores were so low. But my goodness, at the time I was working long hours, getting involved in everything, picking every battle, fighting every fire and generally being a pain in the ass. All the while, thinking “what a great leader I am”.

I know there will be some people who will say I am being way too hard on myself, but the reality is that I didn’t like who I was at the time and when I reflect on that now, that version of myself scares me. But it’s in failure that we have the opportunity to learn so much. And it’s from my failures, that I think have been able to develop into an insightful and courageous coach.

Leadership requires self-leadership first - don't neglect your ability to self-lead!

Ultimately, your success or failure depends on your ability to self-lead. People with strong self-leadership skills align their intentions and behaviours, but they also follow up with consistent, dedicated effort. Self-leadership is a skill you can learn. The neuroscience research shows us that the brain is plastic - that by consciously taking responsibility for our choices we can rewire new connections in the brain and develop independence, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

Developing some of these self-leadership strengths takes time and continuous effort on your part.

Think of it like gym for your brain. Just like building physical muscles, you need to keep exercising your self-leadership muscle regularly.

Leadership requires self-awareness - don't let your ego blind you!

Build your self awareness

Self-awareness is the foundation for self-leadership. It's about being objective and honest with yourself. It's about knowing what drives you, understanding your values, and recognising your strengths and weaknesses. It is also about knowing your personality and what triggers affect your thoughts and behaviours. It is a constant habit that you need to develop and is essential for effective leadership.

To know yourself requires getting conscious, identifying and observing your patterns, getting curious about what you automatically assume to be true, getting honest about what you filter out or distort to suit yourself. You will need to choose to get into the driver’s seat where and when it matters to you most. The first step in building your self-leadership is self-awareness and that means noticing and possibly rewiring your unconscious patterns.

Take a breathe and notice what might be triggering you

I was once the project manager for a project with a particularly challenging client. One of my team members made a silly mistake. He copied the client in on a fairly undiplomatic email that was certainly not intended for the client's eyes and which should never have been written in the first place.

I was under a lot of pressure that day, and when the understandably angry call from the upset client, brought out the worst in me. With a misguided sense of power, I stormed into my colleague’s office to give him a piece of my mind. At that moment, I wanted to transfer the pain to him.

I will never forget the look of fear on his face, the immense sense of satisfaction I had at the moment that the pain shifted to his shoulders, and the shame I felt immediately afterwards, knowing that I had allowed the worst parts of myself to be triggered. If truth be told I written several similarly silly emails in my rookie consultant days.

As a leader, I should have been able to sympathise and help my colleague course correct the situation. But at that time in my life several times a day I was experiencing what Daniel Goleman described in 1995 as an amygdala hijack.

I've since learned that even just taking a few breaths between a triggering event and taking action, can be enough to break that primitive fight-flight-freeze response that the amygdala triggers in response to a perceived threat.

I wish I'd had more self-awareness at the time to time to breathe, collect my thoughts and move out of triggered mode before addressing the situation. In his book, Six Attributes of a Leadership Mindset, Joe Britto calls this “seeing, before acting in the gap”. Instead, I was blinded by my emotions.

“Seeing before acting in the gap is about more than noticing how we’re feeling. It’s about using the space and the clarity that mindfulness gives us to take effective action”. – Joe Britto.

Leadership is meant to inspire and empower - don't inadvertently discourage and disable your team!

A few years ago, and well after I had left my leadership position, I spent some time exploring the concept of what success means to me. Had I thought about it earlier I might have realised that one of my personal metrics for success would've been growing some of my team members into being the next leaders of the department. I might have shown up with a more conscious approach to empowering staff to lead themselves, rather than discouraging them through my behaviours that were demonstrating how hard I was finding leadership to be.

"Briony you make it look so hard. All you ever do is work long hours. You never have time for yourself or your family. You're always here doing everyone else's work. Are you even enjoying your work anymore? Being a leader seems to come with too much stress and a bad mood. Why on earth would I want to step into your shoes? No thanks."

I was mortified when my colleague said this. I'd thought she would be my successor. Wasn't I was demonstrating servant leadership when I routinely reviewed reports at 8 pm and over weekends? Wasn't I inspiring my team to invest more effort in their work when I demonstrated how I had been rewarded with promotions and greater responsibility for my hard work? Wasn't I empowering my team to do higher-quality work by giving them detailed reviews and corrections to their reports?

Apparently what I was demonstrating was that:

  • Leadership positions are not something to aspire to if they entail working the long hours that Briony puts in.

  • There is no reason to check my own work because Briony will check and correct it anyway whether it's the first time I've made that mistake or the 10th time.

  • Submitting a report at 5 pm for a 3-hr review is perfectly acceptable given that Briony routinely works until 8 pm.

“When you say YES to others, make sure you aren’t saying NO to yourself.” - Paulo Coehlo

When I eventually put some boundaries in place, it certainly wasn’t well-received as I went from making life very easy for others to pushing back on their bad behaviours. But consistent enforcement of boundaries can do wonders in recalibrating expectations, and the good news is that eventually, my team started to change their behaviour. It was an important lesson for me that building respect through clear boundaries is way more important than being liked.

Leadership can be lonely - you don't need to go it alone!

Leadership can be a lonely place.Very few new leaders get coached into their new leadership position and in the process miss the fact that they can expect the transition from technical specialist to leader of people to be an uncomfortable journey. Most people assume leaders know exactly what they are doing (otherwise how did they get into a leadership position?), and many leaders get trapped trying to prove that assumption to be true.

But the truth is that what gets leaders into leadership positions, isn’t what makes them great leaders in the long run. I know that from my own humbling experience of being promoted into a leadership position and only then realised I had no idea how to lead. The complication was I was sometimes modelling the behaviours of other leaders who had gone through a similar journey to me, and other times actively trying to do the complete opposite of my leadership predecessors.

Intuitively I knew there had to be a better way. I just didn't know what that way was and admitting that felt like too big a failure to own up to. I didn't know who to ask for help or even that it would have been ok (necessary) to ask for help.

There are several things that I now know would have made my leadership journey less lonely:

Invest in coaching

I invested in coaching about 6 months before I resigned. I was burnt out at the time and blaming everyone but myself. My coach helped me see aspects of myself that others had tried to point out to me.

The process of self-exploration in combination with setting clear goals around how I wanted to show up in my life and in my career helped me identify those aspects for myself and gave me the incentive to address them. I believe I would have been a much more impactful leader if I had invested in coaching early on in my leadership journey as it would have helped me bring unconscious behaviours to the surface, and build a stronger self-leadership mindset.

My coach was someone to talk to that had no agenda other than to help me map out a journey towards my goals. It felt really safe to examine my behaviours and be honest about what was and wasn't working. It helped me see that some of the issues were contextual, but many were issues of my own making.

I believe I would have been a much more impactful leader if I had invested in coaching early on in my leadership journey as it would have helped me to see aspects of myself that I just couldn't or didn't want to see. When I eventually invested in coaching, the process of self-exploration helped me identify those aspects for myself and gave me the incentive and the tools to address them.

Read more (about leadership)

I stopped reading for my own self-development for about 10 years because all I ever did was work. I read no shortage of specialist studies, reports, research websites, statistics, graphs, models, but it was all so that I could synthesise it into findings, conclusions and recommendations. But it was all facts, no stories and had very little impact from a personal development or leadership perspective.

In the last few years, I've picked up reading again largely on topics relating to coaching, leadership, neuroscience, mindfulness, storytelling, influence, emotional intelligence, shame and vulnerability, relationships, purpose, multiple intelligences, organisational culture, personal brand, communication, identity, mindset, change and transitions, positive psychology.

“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go.” - Dr. Seuss

In the process of reading more, I've widened my scope of practice and my confidence in my work. I've been able to position my experiences and failures into a theoretical context and learn that I'm not the only person to have made these mistakes or failures as a leader. I've gained knowledge that I am applying every day in my life and in sessions with clients.

I found a wonderful book recently filled with leadership wisdom from 48 South African leaders: The book every (upcoming, new & seasoned) leader needs to read, by various authors. Ironically I was on my way to facilitate a group coaching session on the topic of leadership and self-leadership. It was such a great find as I have been looking for leadership wisdom from South African leaders - and there right in front of me was a book of 48 leaders sharing their thoughts and experiences on leadership.

One of the essays that really hit home was written by Dr. Alistair Mokoena, Country Director of Google South Africa.

I love his wise words and believe they apply to both self-leadership and leadership as a whole.

“My view is that leadership is, first and foremost, a choice you make. It is a choice that is preceded by a desire to lead and followed by a commitment to a life-long journey of learning. Leaders can never know enough. They are curious, inquisitive and hungry to improve. What do I mean by a desire to lead? A desire to lead has three composite elements. The first element is a desire to serve. The second element is a desire to conquer or triumph. And lastly, the third element is a desire to leave a legacy.” - Dr. Alistair Mokoena

My point is that reading has given me an opportunity to recalibrate how I lead. While I am no longer in an appointed leadership position I now choose to lead myself on a lifelong journey of learning and I have chosen to leave a legacy through the work that I now make a life from.

Build quiet time for reflection and planning into your daily routine

It's easy to get caught up in being busy, in serving others and quickly losing sight of how and why you found yourself in a position of leadership. Make space for yourself. For your quiet reflection. For getting clear on how you want to show up for yourself and for others. If you are moving into a leadership position, or you are already actively choosing to lead, consider:

  • What leadership qualities do you want to be known for?

  • What behaviours will uphold those qualities on a daily basis?

  • How will you contract with yourself to stay accountable for these qualities?

  • How will you contract with others to hold you accountable in your leadership?

  • What system do you need to put in place to support you in a journey of life-long learning and leadership?

If you would like to explore how coaching can help you in your journey to becoming a compassionate, creative and courageous self-leader, book a discovery session with me below.


I love conversations and would love to engage with you on your career and how you are managing yourself and your career like a business.

I believe "managing your career like a business" means having insight on where you want to go in your career, the agility and resilience to change track when necessary, competence to navigate transition points, and self-awareness to manage yourself.

I help you do that through one-on-one coaching, CV and LinkedIn profile writing, topic-specific workshops and a suite of blogs and other materials available on my website. Want more information? Drop me a message and I will get back to you asap.

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