Bad Leaders

bigstock--174355768No one intends to be a bad leader. And yet, it seems there is no shortage of individuals in positions of leadership who fall short of what we would call a “good leadership.” There are plenty of resources out there that outline the traits of a good leader, but far less focus on what happens to result in someone being considered a bad leader. Knowing what to avoid, however can be as instructive to a leader as knowing what to strive for.

Fundamentally, there are two kinds of bad leaders — those who are ineffective, and those who are unethical. Ineffective leaders may have noble ends in mind, but they fall short on the means they use to get there. Unethical leaders may be very effective (in that they accomplish their intended goal) but the ends they are working toward, or the means they use to get there, may be illegal or immoral.

Let’s start with the ineffective leader, because they are far more common. These individuals are working toward a noble cause, they just are not able to achieve the results needed to get there. Why? I’m sure we could fill pages with the ways that leaders are ineffective, but let’s start with the big “Cs.”

  • Communication. This is probably the number one reason why leaders don’t succeed. They fail to clearly communicate their vision. That doesn’t mean they don’t talk a lot, it just means they aren’t conveying a clear, concise, consistent message.
  • Culture. Ineffective leaders often don’t focus enough on “the way we do things around here.” Expectations, accountability and transparency can slip off course pretty easily if not tended to. If the leader doesn’t really listen, treat people with respect or live out the organizational values, the culture will follow suit.
  • Courage. It is hard to make the decisions that lead to success. There is risk, and pushback, and uncertainty, and sometimes it feels safer for a leader to stay in a comfort zone and not rock the boat quite so much. Such a leader might not accomplish the ultimate goal, but they’re still plugging away, right?!!

While many of us think we would never fall into the unethical category, it can be a bit of a slippery slope. To what degree to the ends justify the means? There are also several “C’s” on the path toward unethical behavior, and each step in this direction makes the next one easier to take.

  • Conceit. When leaders start to believe that they know better than anyone else, that they are smarter, and above the rules that apply to everyone else, they are starting down a dangerous path.
  • Callus. Unethical leaders have little concern for the impact of their actions on others. They see “collateral damage” as the cost of success, because their goal is more important than the impact they may be having on others.
  • Corrupt. By the time an unethical leader reaches this point, the other two C’s have often convinced them that there is a justifiable reason for their inappropriate, immoral or illegal activities. Few leaders start here, but sadly some end up here.

When you “C” it this way, perhaps the lines between good leaders and bad don’t seem quite so clear cut. Bad leaders provide a cautionary tale for those of us striving to be good leaders. We just have to be willing to “C” the difference.

Standing Tall

funny piglet in the mud

No matter who you are, or how much you do all the right things from a leadership perspective, there will be days . . . oh yes, you know those days. Someone disappoints you, or undermines what you thought was a collective effort, or otherwise blindsides you with their actions. The days when friends and family can take one look at you and, without you even uttering a word, instantly respond with “Wow, bad day?” Yeah, those days.

Those are the days where all the waxing philosophical about leadership goes out the window and you come face to face with a decision. Who are you really going to be as a leader? Will you respond in kind to the offending action, or will you choose to take the high road. It may seem like an easy decision as you sit at your computer and read this; it likely will be far less clear or easy when you are in the middle of said situation.

And yet, someone has to be the grown-up and keep things in perspective . . . and if you accepted a leadership position in an organization that you care deeply about, that should probably be you. Because here’s the deal. No matter how someone else acts, you get to decide how you will respond. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” A similar, although far less eloquent, sentiment straight out of my rural roots says “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get muddy and the pig likes it.”

Regardless of the words, you get the picture. It is hard to stand tall and stoop at the same time. And no matter how it might feel in the moment, people will notice and remember how you respond. Your people. The ones you want to trust and follow you.

Now let me be clear. I am not suggesting that taking the high road means you simply ignore or become a doormat for someone’s actions. Accountability is part of your responsibility too, and you can choose to hold someone accountable in a transparent, clear and professional matter. Really, you can. Check your frustration at the door, look the individual in the eye, calmly state how you plan to respond, and then move on.

As leaders, our job would certainly be easier if everyone treated us the way we want to be treated. But then, I’m guessing most of us didn’t get into this job because we were looking for easy. Easy is nice when you can get it, but impact is what drives most leaders, and you rarely reach the point of impact without a few bumps along the way.

The best way to handle the bumps? Stand tall and lead on.