Leadership Traps: Escape and Excel with These Tips

Tosca Killoran (EdD)
8 min readOct 12, 2023


Throughout my years of leading, I’ve maintained a journal with a recurring entry title: “Today I sucked at…” It’s not about self-deprecation; instead, it’s a candid conversation with myself. It’s a way to look hard and confront the unvarnished truth. At times, the reflection wasn’t clear, and that journal space remained empty. Sometimes, it wasn’t until years later that I recognized myself in others, and the pitfalls I could’ve avoided became clear. Acknowledging these missteps isn’t always easy, but it’s crucial for leadership growth.

In this article, I’m sharing traps I’ve encountered and witnessed others fall into, aiming to help leaders avoid them altogether.

The Vacuum Trap

Have you ever walked into a room and everyone falls silent? Walking into a room and feeling the air sucked out is a clear indicator of stifled innovation within your team. It’s a recipe for organizational disaster when team members hesitate to share ideas due to fear of disapproval or rejection. To air out the room:

  • Open Door Policy: Embrace an open-door policy that encourages team members to share their thoughts and ideas anytime. Start with an old-fashioned ‘Suggestions Box.’
  • Inclusive Meetings: Design meetings to include moments for feedback and innovative thinking. Use meeting protocols such as the Seven Norms of Collaboration.
  • Listen Better: Practice active listening during meetings, giving your full attention to team members without judgment.

Listen to 5 Ways to Listen Better.

The “I Love the Sound of My Voice” Trap

We have all encountered that leader who loves to hear themselves talk, dominating meetings with endless monologues. After a few hours of silently listening to a leader in such a meeting, I finally tried to interject and share my insights. I was abruptly cut off with a curt, “Can I finish?” I remember physically sitting back as I realized that this leader was more interested in using me as a sounding board than engaging in genuine intellectual collaboration. That moment killed the spark I had to contribute to the organization. Remember, the most influential presence in a room is not the most active talker but the most attentive listener. To avoid this trap:

  • Equal Airtime: Encourage balanced participation in meetings, actively soliciting input from all team members. Use talking sticks or other implements of equity.
  • Transcription Services: Use Ai transcription services to analyze your talk-to-listen ratio objectively.
  • Self-Awareness: Seek feedback on your communication style from team members.

Explore Equity Maps.

The Meeting Overload Trap

In busy schools, information is vital. In collaborative environments such as the IB, curriculum, policy, procedures, and strategic plans require time to meet and co-create. However, the Meeting Overload Trap is a common challenge in many schools, where excessive meetings can lead to reduced productivity and burnout. To avoid this trap:

  • Purposeful Meetings: Clearly define the purpose and objectives before scheduling a meeting. Focus on one thing rather than cram as much in as possible. Include only essential participants.
  • Time Management: Stick to scheduled start and end times. Keep meetings as short as possible.
  • Alternative Communication: Explore alternative asynchronous and synchronous communication methods. Videos, newsletters, and leaders' blogs are great ways to document information without needing another meeting.

Read The surprising impact of meeting-free days.

The Blame-the-Bad-Apple Trap

It is common for leaders to dismiss issues within their teams as the result of a single “bad apple.” However, instead of blaming one individual, consider the overall team environment. Create a supportive workspace that respects everyone’s identity, beliefs, and values. Ensure physical comfort, access to resources, and opportunities for reflection. Start simple. Does everyone in the workplace have equity of space, a desk, access to natural light, and a safe place to lock their belongings? Ensuring the basic needs of humans helps set the stage for happier employees. Consider:

  • Holistic Assessment: Take a holistic approach to identify the root causes of unease.
  • Data: Value data collection and analysis. Do not chuck specific data that does not fit within your confirmation bias.
  • Genuine Feedback: Foster a culture of honest feedback. Use 360° surveys.
  • Create Gracious Space.

Listen to One Bad Apple.

The Parent Trap

Leaders who fall into the Parent Trap may outwardly espouse team coaching strategies and the tenets of transformational leadership but, within meetings, resort to condescension, yelling, or criticism. They may treat employees like children rather than highly skilled practitioners. Developing self-awareness about your behaviour and maintaining a respectful and supportive tone when communicating with your team is crucial to avoid this trap.

  • Self-awareness: Video or audio record your meetings. Listen to how you talk and respond to your team.
  • Journal: Reflect on your behaviour and communication style through a journal.
  • Critical Friendships: Seek feedback from peer-level colleagues or mentors. Ask someone to watch you lead a meeting or invite them to critique an aspect of your practice.

Learn about Bullying and Harassment.

The Gender Bias Trap

Gender stereotypes should not limit leadership. Effective leadership is about adaptability and authenticity rather than conforming to gendered expectations. To avoid falling into the Gender Bias Trap, embrace intersectionality and foster an inclusive work environment where everyone feels comfortable and valued, regardless of gender. Start with respectfully introducing or greeting employees by their preferred titles and pronouns to help increase workplace gender equity.

  • Intersectionality Awareness: Recognize your own intersecting identities.
  • Gender-Neutral Leadership: Challenge gender stereotypes. Women leaders are not always empaths, nor are men bullheaded.
  • Mentorship and Sponsorship: Support underrepresented genders.
  • Feedback and Evaluation: Use objective criteria in evaluations.

Take the GBA+ Course.

The Stick to the Plan Trap

Leaders in the Stick to the Plan Trap often struggle to adapt and pivot when necessary. They are the leaders who insist on plowing through content-heavy slide decks when they have lost their audience. While having a plan is essential, remaining agile and responsive to changing circumstances is equally crucial. To avoid this, balance your goals with agility, be open to adapting and pivoting when circumstances require it and prioritize the most pressing issues for the organization.

  • Agility and Adaptability: Design opportunities for change in planning and decision-making.
  • Continuous Monitoring: Review and reassess plans regularly.
  • Prioritization: Prioritize objectives based on urgency and impact.
  • Scenario Planning: Develop contingency plans.

Understand Agile vs. Design Thinking.

The Confirmation Bias Trap

The Confirmation Bias Trap is a common pitfall when leaders unquestioningly accept information that aligns with their beliefs and biases. This can be particularly detrimental during exit interviews, discussions, and open forums, as it hinders leaders from fully understanding aspects of situations that could help the organization grow. People who depend on leaders for references may withhold candid feedback out of fear. To avoid falling into this trap, it is essential to approach input with an open mind and cultivate an environment that encourages honesty.

  • Healthy Skepticism: Encourage challenging conversations and take any feedback that comes without critique with skepticism.
  • Anonymous Channels: Implement anonymous feedback mechanisms like 360° and exit interview surveys.

Employ The Tenth Man Rule.

The Mini-Me Trap

Leaders who fall into the Mini-Me Trap exert excessive control over their team’s work and communication. This micromanagement can suffocate creativity and initiative, leaving team members feeling disempowered and demoralized. The result? A stifled team atmosphere can adversely impact performance. This trap is the big sister of the Vacuum Trap. The leader doesn’t trust the person or team to complete tasks, projects, or initiatives, so the leader micromanages the person or team. Employees recognize that the leader will take over and tell them what to do anyway, so they give up offering innovative, forward-thinking or empowered work. They stall out in learned helplessness. The leader confirms that the worker is ineffective, so they micromanage the tasks, projects or initiatives, and the cycle repeats. To stop the cycle:

  • Empower Team Members: Trust your team’s expertise and capabilities through designed systems with built-in accountability measures.
  • Have clear JDs: Create job descriptions with clear expectations.

Implement a project management system or paid service like Monday.

The Fake Collaboration Trap

When I was a teacher, it used to be frustrating to put in hours of work co-creating something, only for the leadership to take and alter it into something they had wanted all along. True collaboration is not just about gathering your team’s work to serve your purposes. It is about fostering a dynamic synergy within your team that propels everyone toward a common goal. Unfortunately, some leaders inadvertently fall into the trap of manipulating their team’s contributions to suit their agenda. This not only erodes trust but can also dampen the team’s motivation and creativity. As a leader, take ownership of tasks that do not need collaboration and carefully choose items for co-creation to ensure deep, meaningful, and authentic project time.

  • Inclusive Decision-Making: Involve your team in decision-making.
  • Respect for Contributions: Value your team’s collaborative time.
  • Transparent Feedback: Maintain transparency in feedback and decision-making.

Learn to collaborate effectively.

The Optimistic Ignorance Trap

Leaders who fall into the Optimistic Ignorance Trap often ignore clear signs of team unhappiness or organizational issues, believing everything is fine. Toxic positivity is just as significant a threat to employee wellbeing as the aforementioned bad apple. To avoid succumbing to the allure of “Rose-Tinted Glasses,” it is essential to stay vigilant and proactive in addressing problems.

  • Regular Check-Ins: Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins with team members. Listen and take real action on issues.
  • Conflict Resolution: Proactively address conflicts.
  • Continuous Improvement: Regularly evaluate and improve processes.

Read Joy and Success At Work: Building Organizations That Don’t Suck (The Life Out Of People).

The Self-Reflection Solution

Incorporate self-reflection into your leadership routine. Use Anonymous 360° surveys and gather feedback from diverse stakeholders. Check out some examples here:

Use reflective journaling to document thoughts, experiences, and observations related to leadership. Celebrate and acknowledge the things you suck at. Check out a few example journals I’ve created that you could use:

Seek Feedback from critical friends and develop an authentic relationship with a mentor. Work to cultivate listening skills and commit to ongoing professional development in leadership.

By implementing these strategies and engaging in regular self-reflection, you can evolve into a more effective leader, evade common leadership traps and refine your leadership approach.



Tosca Killoran (EdD)

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