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.

The Leadership Barometer

Change in the weather barometer macro detail.Merriam-Webster defines a barometer as 1) an instrument that is used to measure air pressure and predict changes in the weather, or 2) something that is used to indicate or predict something.

Like it or not, if you are in a leadership position, you will have staff members “checking your readings” as a barometer of what they can expect within the organization. Seriously. It is amazing how many people will notice if there is a change in your typical pattern of behavior (more/less meetings with leadership team, upbeat/looking stressed, out and about/holed up in your office . . . you get the picture), and their anxiety may go up or down depending on what they see.

This realization is rather disconcerting at first. After all, the fact that you may be dealing with some high-stress issues doesn’t necessarily mean the sky is falling; and even the most upbeat among us occasionally have bad days — sometimes several in a row — that may have nothing to do with the organization. What’s a leader supposed to do?

Well first, for those of you thinking “Don’t my staff have enough to do without keeping an eye on me?” . . . probably . . . but can you honestly say that you have never gauged someone’s mood by paying attention to how they entered a room? It’s instinctual. So being aggravated that people are monitoring your behavior is a waste of time. The real challenge is what are you going to do about it? It doesn’t feel authentic to “fake it” and act like everything is goodness and sunshine all the time. People know better, and over time will begin to either not trust you or think you are totally disconnected from the reality they experience. On the other hand, openly conveying every frustration or anxiety, “ain’t it awful” style, doesn’t seem like a good plan either.

So what is the best option? I recommend transparency with a positive long view. My staff knows I am going to share the good the bad and the ugly — in context with my absolute confidence in this organization. “Yes, the bureaucratic wrangling we are experiencing right now is ridiculous, and it’s not likely to get better for a while, AND, we will do what we need to do to move past this and carry out our mission.” Jim Collins called this the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great, describing the ability to have unwavering faith while facing the brutal facts. “These are difficult times, no doubt about it. We have made it through a lot of challenges before, and I am confident we will again,” — honest, without being fatalistic.

That is a barometer people can trust. It indicates there are challenges, and predicts the organization will prevail. It gives your staff confidence to stick with you through the storms to reach the sun on the other side.

What is your barometer forecasting?