The Self-Defeating Habits That Are Holding Back Even Great Leaders

We’re all subject to moments of self-defeating behavior. Generally they’re coping tools, triggered by uncertainty and the need to feel that we’re in control during challenging times. An occasional episode is nothing to worry about. But when self-defeating behavior becomes a habit, it becomes a problem.

Part of my job as an executive leadership coach is to help leaders identify and overcome the habits that are holding them back. Here are the top 10 self-defeating habits I’ve found that hinder even great leaders:

Leading with displacement. If you are constantly transferring your anger or frustration onto others, or if you’re having to apologize for blowing up at someone who hasn’t done anything wrong, you’re leading with displacement. In its most common form, displacement involves feeling anger toward someone who holds power over you but directing that anger at someone with less power—you’re mad at senior leadership but take it out on your assistant or your family.

Leading with projection. Projection is a common coping tool people use when they’re anxious or feeling that they’re in over their head. In those moments of discomfort, an insecure leader’s first instinct is to project their own insecurities and failings on others. You may have found yourself in situations where you blame others for your shortcomings, or attribute your unacceptable impulses to others. These are sure signs that you’re leading with projection.

Leading with denial. Denial is one of the most common and best-known defense mechanisms—and it’s one of the most damaging. When a challenge becomes too much to handle, those in denial simply shut down reality. Leaders may think they’re protecting themselves and even protecting their people, but in actuality denial makes positive and constructive change impossible. You know you’re in denial when you have to work hard to maintain your version of events in the face of overwhelming evidence pointing in a different direction.

Leading with rationalization. Those who are nimble thinkers are especially prone to rationalization, since it involves creating a supposedly plausible reason to justify their damaging behavior. A sure sign: The person doing the rationalization always feels they’re in the right. To combat rationalization, regularly ask people you trust to speak honestly with you about your leadership, and take stock of your moral compass to make sure you’re leading with an open mind and open heart.

We all experience self-defeating moments, and even great leaders sometimes allow them to become habits. But they’re habits that come at a great cost. Spend some time thoughtfully considering whether your own leadership includes any of these self-defeating habits—and if the answer is yes, then act to change them. If you can’t do it on your own, ask for help. Follow the example of top leaders who use coaching to help them become the best they can be.

Lead from within: The person who may be holding you back from great leadership …could be you.

#1 N A T I O N A L  B E S T S E L L E R

The Leadership Gap
What Gets Between You and Your Greatness

After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR,, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

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