Why Lousy Leaders Succeed
The worst result of bad leaders is they deflate the drive to be good. Why try, if lousy leaders succeed?
A few weeks back a reader asked why bad leaders succeed. His question has been a dripping faucet ever since.
Bad leaders are leaders too.
Some leaders have a title, but no results. Other’s have results, but crash and burn. John Stumpf, former CEO of Wells Fargo, oversaw the opening of at least 3.5 million fake accounts, for example.
Bad leaders are:
Unskilled in soft skills. Daniel Goleman discovered that emotional intelligence accounts for nearly 90% of the difference between average and star performers.
Over-skilled in soft skills. Even though emotional intelligence is twice as important as technical skill, technical skill is still necessary.
More bad leaders traits:
- Problem-centric vs. solution-centric.
- Not curious.
- Resistant to feedback.
- Ego driven.
(The above list started with only five traits. What’s on your list?)
Four reasons bad leaders succeed:
#1. Good people don’t speak up. Followers are ‘kind’ and tolerant.
#2. We tend to give too much credit for success to top leadership and too little honor to front-line employees.
#3. Others are the reason for their success. A great Chief Operating Officer makes a lousy CEO look good.
#4. Everyone is frail. If success requires perfection, no one will succeed.
If you have a lousy leader:
- Rise above negativity. (All successful leaders learn to maintain a positive attitude.)
- Learn what to avoid.
- Notice their strengths and learn. No one sucks at everything.
- Fill the gap. Compensate for their lousiness.
- Clarify your values. What’s important to you? Now live it.
- Develop grit.
- Practice gratitude. Negative situations stretch your gratitude muscle.
Aspire to good leadership because it’s who you are. Don’t let others control your life.
What potential advantages might be gained from a bad leader?
The biggest advantage I learned when I was younger and worked for a (not bad but not great) leader was how NOT TO do something. People are always watching leaders, and some people do remember the not-so-good and forget about the good. While the leader showed me how to do things, there were more examples of action/behavior that showed me what not to do.
Thanks Daryl. You reminded me that bad is stronger than good. Our bad traits end up having a bigger impact than our good.
I really needed to hear this and hear it over and over. For me, what is so frustrating is that when lousy leaders stay in place, the expectation is set for employees that upper management believes this is acceptable. In the meantime, many others are pulling the slack to keep that ship afloat. Lousy Leader looks good and quite possibly gets a promotion or raise out of it because people are either afraid to speak up (for fear of retribution), it will fall on deaf ears, or upper management does not want to hear “negativity”. This causes burn out and the can lead to attrition within the organization.
I would love to hear you thoughts on how to navigate the tough process of discussing this with supervisors.
Thanks Michael. You bring up an important idea. Why do well, if a lousy leader enjoys the benefit?
What’s the alternative? Don’t do well to punish a lousy leader. Now who is losing? Having said, that, it’s not easy. Obviously, finding a new job comes to mind.
Love your curiosity about speaking to higher-ups about a lousy leader. One big challenge is the people you are speaking with may have hired the person you are complaining about.
Let’s give it some thought. If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them.
CEOs who enjoy. “celebrity status” because in the minds of many, he or she is inexorably linked to the organization’s founding and past success. This is compounded when during the tenure of the founder he or she exercised the greatest influence on the composition of the board. Bad boards tend to protect and empower bad leaders. CEO’s pride is stroked by groupies on the board, but groupies are a liability to an objective and sabient board. You touched upon my point under your comment in #2 “we tend to give too much credit for success to top leadership.”
Thanks Dave. You bring up a great example. A founder may be great at “founding”. But they may be lousy at building an organization or developing talent, or delegating, or any number of leadership skills.
It reminds me of “What got you here won’t get you there.”
Steve Jobs comes to mind. Another example is Family Dollar. They had a strong personality founder. It was a rocky road to move toward a more collaborative and empowering form of leadership. It can happy.
In the case of Family Dollar the found came to realize that he was not the person to take the organization forward.
You would hope that someone would speak truth to power, but it’s a fearful task.
A lot of lousy leaders are never told what they are doing is wrong–or ineffective or what they could do to be more effective.
Assume positive intent—most leaders are trying to do what’s best in their view. Many haven’t found their leadership sweet spot. They do too much or too little of some leadership behavior. All need some openness and coaching as to what changes will make them more effective.
Make a point today to ask a leader if he/she is open to some feedback they will help them be more effective.
Thanks Paul. Yes, assume positive intent. Very few people show up to intentionally do poorly. 🙂
One challenge is we tie our behaviors and actions to our identity. When someone offers feedback we take it personally. That adds heat.
First understanding that “everyone is replaceable” may help to realize that we all have a place, yet can replaced, like it or not! Working for a lousy leader as we so call labeled them has it’s consequences either with profits or morale depends on the factors associated with being classified as “Lousy”, perhaps others think the leader is great? Now what? Perhaps your looking through “Rose colored glasses” compared to seeing the whole picture!
Surely classifying a person as “lousy” needs a sense of clarification, perhaps we can do something to make them better? Such as speaking with them and addressing our concerns. Sometimes the leader has no idea until someone guides them or suggest that paradise isn’t really so happy these days.
Granted they may not be receptive to being told your analysis that they are lousy! So chose your methods wisely to convey your observations or other viewpoints.
Thanks Tim. It’s a wake-up call to think that maybe the lousy leader isn’t lousy at all. That’s a kick in the pants. And well timed, Tim.
I’ll go back to the idea that we are all frail. You don’t have to be perfect to be a leader.
There should be an 8 … if you are a servant leader and you have twisted yourself this and that to see an untenable working environment, is it really worth your health to stick it out in a toxic work environment led by a toxic leader? I say no from direct experience.
Thanks Michael. How often have you heard someone say they are glad they finally found new employment? Some will say that they wish they would have left sooner.
They are better off for changing. Frankly, maybe the organization they left is better off too. (Depending on how they were showing up.)
I make a point of asking about poor leadership experience in interviews. The “Bad is bigger” effect tends to expose what they are looking for in their next leader. It also can be great to show a glimpse into the person that may be hidden during interviewing.
Thanks Nicholas. What was going on the last time you were frustrated at work? Tell me about the worst leader you ever had? What made them ‘the worst’?
Thanks for adding your perspective.
I would also add 18. singles out an individual or two from which to protect the others. 19. Communicates differently with each member in the team/organization. 20. Makes or enforces rules and expectations differently
It’s been a very long year…
They simply are not held accountable. If we define the behaviors of a (fill in the blank) leader, we can measure that. But “development only” will not change anything. There need to be consequences to 360 feedback.
Very interesting indeed regarding the traits listed. The bottom half traits are ones that I believe most of us would be familiar with. But ‘over-helpful’ was an interesting one. I had never observed a leader displaying that trait but I also didn’t realize it was a bad trait to begin with. For me I always try to take the good and avoid the bad from a leader. Observe and take back what I can learn from them and also learn from their mistakes as well!
Overhelpful—it’s like the parent who does the child’s homework.
I look back on my career quite often and reevaluate myself to ensure I’m doing the best I can do to reach my goals. I common think about my terrible leaders and what I have gained from them.
My List of Bad Traits of a Bad Leader:
Bad Communicator (In whatever form)
What potential advantages can be gained from a bad leader?
My best experiences and gains have been working for bad leaders. It shows how not to end up. What qualities that shouldn’t be used or received. I think that has helped me out throughout my career. I’ve tried my best to not be those bad leaders and not do the things that made them be a bad leader. Although during those time periods, the work climate was poor. I treated as a learning experience.
Whenever I speak to colleagues and they are having a tough time, I inform them to use it as a learning experience, put it in the toolbox for the future and be optimistic. As long as you are accomplishing the mission, it will get better.
What potential advantages might be gained from a bad leader? It teaches one the signs of a bad leader and be able to spot one. With this knowledge instead of getting trapped in a toxic environment one has the knowledge to move on.
Dan, just wanted to introduce MohamedTulane and SterlingTulane as students working on their Leadership Practicum at Tulane in their Master’s program. I oversee the Leadership Practicum. I’ll be looking forward to their contributions. Enjoy…Jim
I’ve worked for the same company the last 17 years. It started out rough, the first four years were extremely toxic. My direct supervisor was a mess as a leader. I stuck it out because I could see the potential for this company to be great and I wanted to be part of that type change. It’s gone from about 50 employees to over 350 and is now extremely successful in our industry.. It’s not for everyone, but I lean more toward “be part of the solution through your own leadership.” If you stay strong in your pursuits you can have a great impact on everyone around you directly and indirectly.
Wonderful Article. Loved reading every bit of it.
Very helpful and very insightful