If you look at the major news stories in business, politics, diplomacy, whatever, it’s pretty hard to miss that most of the crises we face are crises of leadership.
I once worked for a man who couldn’t pull the trigger on a project, ever. I would bring him a request with all the supporting documentation. He would ask me to rerun it. When I came back, he would want it rerun again, and again.
It was like an endless doom loop of frustration. I could never get him off the dime. By the time he approved it, the opportunity was lost, and he would blame me for missing it. It was utterly dispiriting.
I’ve worked for a few spectacularly bad bosses in my time. And as a corporate executive I’ve had others equally bad occasionally working for me.
Maybe it’s no surprise, but whether it’s those leaders in my immediate experience or the ones I read about in the news, I see the same failures and mistakes over and over, and each one has a direct impact on getting the results we want.
I’ve arranged them here as the top-ten characteristics of lousy leaders. These are all traits to avoid—or unlearn if you already have trouble with them:
- They don’t have enough confidence to lead at their level. The boss I mentioned at the start was like this. He couldn’t decide because he had no faith in his decisions.
- They’re arrogant, assuming they always know what’s best. It takes confidence to lead. It also takes humility. Many leaders think they’re confident when they’re really just pigheaded and proud.
- They’re disorganized. I’ve worked with some hard-driving, capable leaders who hamstrung themselves by never getting organized. I reported to one leader like this, right up until I was promoted above him. The first thing I did was fire him.
- Their words and actions erode trust, even with their supporters. When I fired the boss I just mentioned, this is the primary reason for my decision. I could never count on him as his direct report. I certainly didn’t want him reporting to me.
- They over-promise and under-deliver. This one affects more than just politicians. People leading up in an organization often do this this because they are trying to impress those above them, failing to realize that by under-delivering they are shooting themselves in the foot. And people at the top fall into the trap by overusing promises as a way to ensure team loyalty.
- They don’t articulate a clear vision. No one wants to follow in the dark. It’s impossible to motivate people who feel in a fog.
- They don’t enroll others in their initiatives. No. 7 is related to No. 6. Some leaders just expect people will follow them just because of their position. Wrong. If a leader can’t enroll others, failure looms.
- They’re not transparent. Openness encourages honesty. How often do we see the opposite playing out in business and politics? Scandal is only the endgame. But how many bad calls are made before the news finally breaks?
- They’re blind to what’s happening in their own organizations. Insulation is fine for the walls of your house, but not for leadership. To lead requires visibility. Without it, you’ll find yourself blindsided and making major blunders.
- They don’t hold people accountable—especially themselves. If a leader avoids responsibility and won’t hold their team accountable, they’ll shipwreck the organization. Accountability is essential.
Pick your crisis and you’ll usually find one of these ten traits of lousy leadership in action, often many of them all at once. Bad leadership traits go together.
If you see any of these in your leadership, now’s the time to deal with it. Your dreams and goals are too important to undermine. It’s hard enough to succeed as a leader without being your own worst enemy.
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