10 Not So Obvious Barriers to Effective Leadership

Leadership is not an accomplishment you check off your daily to-dos. At the heart of effective leadership is the omnipresent, bold belief that influence, relationships, dialogue and faith in people call forward our best leadership abilities. Leadership is inspiring others to give their best effort despite what they believe to get things done.



Yet, there are many well-intended (and some not so) people who hit barriers to their leadership abilities. At the risk of being yet another voice in the echo chamber, I want to share ten less obvious barriers to effective leadership. On the surface they seem obvious. Truth is, however, many of us are unwilling to look at these barriers. Going a step further, many of us are unwilling to admit some of these hold us back.

Your own leadership becomes great when you tend to your own internal well-being. That’s where things get tricky. Depending on where your attention lies when improving your internal well-being, you either entrench the barriers or move them aside.

Read the following ten barriers to get a sense of where your intentions must lie to amplify your leadership.

Need to be liked

Effective leaders understand unpopular views are necessary. The need to be liked interferes with the ability to see two steps ahead from where the team is and effectively navigate the team to the next level of performance and success.

Inability to decide

Admittedly this one is obvious. But a leader who can gather input or know when to unilaterally make a decision can gain trust, respect and signal confidence to followers. Poor decisions or no decisions causes anxiety, frustration, anger, and weakens confidence in the leader.

Unable to manage workload

Do more with less is an overused mantra in most organizations today. Effective leaders pay attention to the demands on their people and make changes when the workload is causing unmanageable stress, weakens quality, and becomes an expense to people and the organization.

Unclear on personal values

Values are the anchor that help us weather the drama, disappointments and temptations in the workplace. To not know your values leaves you susceptible to inconsistencies that baffle and anger you and your team.

No clear team purpose

Purpose is the why for the team’s existence. If the team’s purpose is not clear and only plucked from everyone’s intuition, then anyone can sway the team unproductively. That’s a problem.

Don’t network

Business has always been built on the back of relationships. It’s a weak excuse to blame workload and endless meetings for the reason you don’t network with other managers or divisions. Know what’s going on around you so you can prepare your team or position your team for success.

Don’t take a stand

Malcom X said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” If you don’t know what you stand for you and your team will never reach its full potential. Unnecessary hardships are wasted.

Don’t consider what’s at stake

Decisions to act or not act must be made when considering what actions to take. Without knowledge of what’s at stake, you appear erratic, too spontaneous, careless. What’s at stake for your team, the organization, the customer, for you? These are good places to look.

Don’t demand best from your people

Who has time for one-on-ones or give feedback? Effective leaders do. In today’s “do more with less” work environments, effective leaders help their people grow in their jobs. This only happens with care and intention to build up great people and teams.

It’s about you

Effective leadership is not about you. It’s about others. Ineffective managers fail to lead when they place their needs above what’s needed for the team, the organization, an individual. This is hard to swallow.

It’s a long list. What would you add? Disagree with? Share in the comments below.


Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of ExchangeGain. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Jeff Lucas

    Shawn – This is a hard, cruel truth you speak. But you left out the most important factor that sets a true leader apart: They overcome these barriers in the interest of their team or the people following them. Your last barrier mentions it, but doesn’t emphasize that this is the overriding factor that drives them to overcome the other barriers.

    Here’s a question: Can these factors be taught effectively in a classroom to undergraduates or is this something that requires experience to learn?

    Thanks for the post.

  • Bruce Sallan

    Shawn – sort of interesting to focus on the negatives here – as RIGHT ON as they are. To a degree, I believe leadership is inborn. You can learn to do it better but I think you either got that magic or you don’t. What do you say?

  • Des Walsh

    On my first reading, my reaction was “Ouch!”, in that I could think of times I’d fallen down in one or several of these. Then on re-reading, and considering your invitation to comment, I thought as follows.  All good points, as long as there is balance. I can think of people in leadership positions, people I have had to report to or otherwise deal with, who exhibited one or more of the following (note my tongue slightly in cheek): didn’t need to be liked but/because were sociopaths; quick to decide but with some lousy decisions predominating; managed workload (boring workaholics); clear personal values but no evidence of a moral compass; networked but manipulatively, not openly, and used network to get info to put people down. 

    There was a study a few years ago that indicated the number of psycopaths in corporate leadership positions could be disproportionately higher than in the general populace. The UK Guardian commented on the study report as follows (quoting study researcher P. Babiak at the end):  “The survey suggests psychopaths are actually poor managerial performers but are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath, Babiak said.”

    Thanks for prompting these scary thoughts, Shawn! :)

  • Jon M

    Even more than what is needed for the team is what is needed for the company. Taking it up another level is what is best for the customer. Leaders need to think and act in a broader context to be more effective, I believe.

    Great points made here, Shawn. Thanks! Jon

  • Bruce Sallan

    Shawn, I couldn’t get reply to work next to your reply!? But, of course I meant a natural high – on a mountaintop or in the beauty of nature. What other high is there?

  • Jessica Weatherford

    I found myself smiling as I read this because you basically compiled a list of the 10 main delays to my consulting work taking effect in an organization!  We always get through them, but this list says a ton about your experience.  I have personally found the workload barrier to be pervasive.

    The concept of needing to manage a workload so there are available hours for planning, collaborating, learning and developing are very foreign in so many organizations.

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Karen Cotton

    This is one of the best best posts I’ve read in a long time. Thank you!

  • Conor

    Simple, clear and thought provoking ;-)

  • kat

    This is very helpful. I’m trying to become a shift leader at my job and this has opened my eyes to what’s barring me from my promotion. Thank you

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