5 Leadership Traps to Avoid Post-COVID

Turn 2021 into a year of execution by recognizing these traps that are holding you back.
Chris McChesneyMarch 10, 2021

No more excuses.

The pandemic’s first year gave leaders some slack: The situation was novel, the challenges unique. Everyone was flying blind.

Those days are over. We’re still confronting the crisis, but the adrenaline has worn off. If you’re leading a team or a company, you may have gotten a pass last year if some mistakes were made and things didn’t go well. This year it’s different.

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To successfully navigate year two — and what is sure to be an equally challenging post-pandemic environment — here are five traps executives must avoid.
1. The Urgency Trap

Weeks are going by, and your team doesn’t seem to be getting much traction on that key initiative. When you ask about it, you get a thumbs up. “Yes, of course!” “It’s super important.” “Key to our future!” It seems your team is committed, but not much progress is being made.

The problem? Everyone is busy fixing the crisis of the moment, not executing the strategy. Few would disagree with their leaders’ strategic objectives, but at the moment, important doesn’t determine what people do. Urgent does.

The incredible challenges of 2020 whipped that daily must-do frenzy even higher. But now it’s time for leaders to help their teams rededicate energy to their non-urgent strategic priorities. It won’t be easy. But when leaders fail to execute, it’s rarely because their people were defiant, lazy, or stupid. Instead, failure comes when their people were too busy to spend energy on what was most important.

2. The Complexity Trap

Last year brought a lot of new challenges and a lot of new opportunities. Now it all just feels like a lot. Your operation has always been complex, but the recent turmoil makes that complexity particularly overwhelming.

It’s March, and you still haven’t finalized the budget, signed that contract, hired that vendor, or signed off on goals. Why? The target trap.

Execution fails in the face of too much complexity. Regain your grasp on execution with this step: Sort your giant list of priorities and objectives into three categories.

Stroke-of-the-pen: List any priority that requires money or your authority. Examples include changing a work process, buying new equipment, hiring a new agency, or modifying a compensation system. These priorities usually don’t represent significant execution challenges. They are going to happen because the leader said so.

Life support: These priorities are related to everyday operations, such as production, revenue, project completion percentage, and customer satisfaction. These directly affect and are measured by KPIs. Most of the organization’s energy is consumed by the duties in this column.

Breakthrough: These priorities cannot be accomplished with a stroke of the pen and aren’t considered life support activities. A breakthrough item might begin in one of the first two categories, such as a product launch (stroke of the pen) or improved customer retention (life support), but soon you realize it doesn’t belong there. Think of it like this, some product launches are pretty straightforward, and your team has done them multiple times. But this one is so complex it requires major changes in how the organization operates. It needs your team to shift duties and engage in new ways. Now, this launch has moved out of your stroke-of-the-pen category and firmly into the breakthrough list.

Once you have simplified and categorized the to-do list, make sure each team is only working on one breakthrough at a time. They can juggle multiple stroke-of-the-pen and life-support objectives, however.

3. The Target Trap

It’s March, and you still haven’t finalized the budget, signed that contract, hired that vendor, or signed off on goals. Why? The target trap.

Concurrent crises last year made decision paralysis more acute. How could you make decisions about the future when so much was unknown? You got a pass.

No longer. Even if you are still uncertain about committing to specific deadlines or performance levels, good execution begins with targets. Resist the impulse to think, “We can’t set specific goals right now because so much is unknown.” One effective first step? Scrutinize one of your breakthrough objectives and set targets around achieving it.

4. The Persuasion Trap

You have a go-to speech. You know the one. It’s compelling; you know how to deliver it. It gets people jazzed.

One problem, and it’s a big one, you’re confusing persuasion with engagement. Persuasion pushes an idea. Engagement pulls people in. With your stump speech, it’s easy to believe, “Once my audience sees how much sense this makes, or how critical this is, they will come along.”

It’s not enough.

Even if your speech addresses big concerns, the team still sees them as your priorities. They haven’t truly bought in. That’s okay if your grand vision only requires a stroke of the pen or can be accomplished during their usual duties.

But what if your organization requires a real breakthrough or real innovation? You need commitment and engagement. That requires stepping back a bit. Let those who work for you determine the breakthrough objectives that will help the initiative succeed. You can send them back to the drawing board if needed, but do not dictate the objectives. They need to drive the breakthrough themselves.

5. The Futility Trap

Sometimes people responsible for a project don’t believe results are possible, and they don’t tell you. They’re not pushing back. They haven’t stopped working. They have just gone back to their daily duties, and that is where they will stay.

They are not defiant, nor are they poor performers (usually). They cannot connect the dots between where they are and where the organization needs to go. Their feeling is one of futility. The futility trap happens when there’s too much ambiguity. The team’s usual objectives may be hectic, urgent, even discouraging, but they are known quantities. The new direction is a different story.

Think of ambiguity like carbon monoxide poisoning; the body can only take so much before it shuts down. At work, people turn away from tasks or assignments that are ambiguous, especially after a year like the last one.

The cure? If you have overcome or avoided the traps of urgency, complexity, target, and persuasion, you will have headed off the futility trap for yourself and your team.

The quicker you recognize any of the traps holding you back, the quicker you can turn 2021 into a year of execution.


Chris McChesney is a Wall Street Journal #1 national best-selling author of “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” and the global practice leader of execution for FranklinCovey.

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