Sep 062011

ineffective leaders

7 Common Traits Of Ineffective Leaders

We have some great leaders in our world.  Unfortunately, we have some very ineffective leaders as well.  Here we’ll look at seven common traits of ineffective leaders, so you can try to avoid emulating them as you strive to expand your leadership capabilities.

This list of seven traits is not all-inclusive, nor is it in order of importance.  These are simply seven traits that I see all the time, which undermine the ability of leaders to help their organizations and themselves achieve all that they can.

I also want to point out that not all the following characteristics are intrinsically “bad”.  There are certain situations that call for some or all of them.  In “everyday” leadership scenarios and organizations not in crisis though, the following seven leader traits are not likely to result in an optimal outcome.

Common Ineffective Leader Trait #1:  Micro-Managing

Wait, are we talking about leadership or management?  Sometimes the line becomes blurred.  My favorite metaphor illustrating the difference between management and leadership is from Stephen Covey’s story of a logging crew working in the forest.  The crew is working hard and someone yells from atop a nearby mountain (paraphrasing), “Hey, you down there” … “What? We’re busy making progress, don’t interrupt us” … response:  “You’re in the wrong forest”!

The effective leader is not the one that goes around “getting into everyone’s business”.  Rather, the effective leader makes sure the organization and everyone in it is in the “right forest,” then let’s them get their jobs done.

Common Ineffective Leader Trait #2:  Unclear Objectives

Many, if not most, organizations do not have clear objectives for where they are trying to go.  The leadership of the organization has not taken the time to define where the organization is trying to go or what it is trying to achieve.  In other cases, the objectives have been clearly defined, but they have not been effectively communicated to the members of the organization.  Following on the forest metaphor above, the organization may even actually be in the “right forest,” but due to poor communication, the team may not know whether they’re supposed to be cutting it down or planting more trees.

Common Ineffective Leader Trait #3:  Frequent Direction Changes

There aren’t too many things more demoralizing to someone working hard toward an objective, than having it change, constantly.  We’ve all seen, and some of us have had the displeasure to work in, organizations where the direction and objectives seem to change with the capriciousness of the wind.  We all start “rowing in the same direction” only to be informed, or worst yet, find out second-hand, that the objectives have changed and we’re supposed to be rowing in an entirely different direction.  If you want to be an effective leader, don’t do this to your team on a frequent basis, and if it’s absolutely necessary at some point, explain it well.  Your team will hold it against you a lot less if you communicate with them as openly and honestly as possible regarding why all the work they just expended “was for nothing”.

Common Ineffective Leader Trait #4:  No Culture Of Accountability

Once you have clear goals in place and have communicated them effectively to your team, it’s critical to develop a “culture of accountability”.  Your team must understand that they have their part to do, in order to help the organization achieve its goals.  This “part” must be well-defined, with milestones and target dates for completion.  Progress toward the milestones and overall completion must be tracked and reviewed on a regular basis.  Variances or deviations from plan should be explained and if necessary, course correction must be facilitated and monitored.  Without a “culture of accountability,” it’s too easy for members of the team to get sidetracked “putting out fires” and to never quite complete their “part”.  If this happens systemically, the organization will never reach its goals and the leadership will have failed.

Common Ineffective Leader Trait #5:  Don’t Walk Their Talk

There are some leaders who are tremendous talkers.  They can “wax eloquently” on most any subject and they inspire confidence with their bold pronouncements.  The issue arises when all the hyperbole does not coincide with reality and specifically, when the leader displays behavior that is inconsistent with what he or she is “preaching”.  Leaders, as persons who are supposed to inspire confidence, like it or not, are held to a higher standard.  If you aspire to be a “great leader,” it’s important that you “walk your talk”.  Don’t make eloquent pronouncements, then contradict them with your behavior.  That will be the quickest route to lose the respect and confidence of your team and other relevant constituencies.

Common Ineffective Leader Trait #6:  Run People Over

Ineffective leaders, frequently unable to persuade with logic or emotional appeals that make sense to their team, often just “run people over”.  That usually takes the form of “you’ll do it because I said so”.  This approach can be necessary in certain situations, particularly where a team member does not want to listen to reason, or simply cannot be given enough information to fully grasp the rationale for a particular mandate.  However, if this approach is used as a matter of routine, then it is likely to alienate many members of the team.  This point is highly related to the point above regarding effective communication.  If you communicate effectively as a leader and you have selected good members to your team, you typically will not have the need to “run people over”.  That would be ideal, because when intelligent people get run over, they typically find a way to use their formal or informal power within the organization to make you “pay the price”.  They undermine you every chance they get, even if just in a passive aggressive way.

Common Ineffective Leader Trait #7:  Take Credit For Everything

If something works well in your organization, give credit to your team.  Why?  Well first, it’s the right thing to do.  If you are playing a leadership role, while you may have put everyone in the “right forest,” it’s highly likely that the remainder of your organization did the execution necessary to “make it happen”.  Second, you will look and feel a lot better if you “give credit where credit is due”.  Even if the reward is not monetary, pretty much everyone appreciates a pat on the back for a job well done.  Remember the adage, “praise in public and criticize in private”.  Don’t be shy about highlighting the tremendous performance of your team and certain individuals with your team.  While some underperformers may get jealous, the achievers will appreciate the recognition and are likely to continue performing at a high level, for you and for the organization.

So there you have “7 Common Traits of Ineffective Leaders” and some ideas on how you can avoid those traits and continue on your path to becoming an effective leader.  As I said at the outset, I realize that this is not an all-inclusive list and I realize that in some situations, these “bad” traits may be necessary.

What has your experience been in working in various organizations and in developing your own leadership style?  Please share!

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin


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  • We really like this blog. Sometimes the best way to learn about leadership is through ineffective leadership. If you get a chance, take a look at some of our LeaderSkilz videos. They are funny videos showing how NOT to lead.

  • Thanks for stopping by! I took a look at the video you linked below. Good stuff! Micro-managing generally is quite counterproductive — it’s great that you highlight it with humor. Paul

  • Pingback: 7 Common Traits Of Ineffective Leaders | EntrepreneurScoop |

  • Thanks for creating this list. I think I love list that point out what people should not be doing rather than the usual what they should be doing 🙂

  • Yes, it’s good to change it up once in a while. 🙂

  • Ron

    It’s been a challenge to every leader. This blog is really great. The best thing about life is to learn from experiences and mistakes. Leaders train their subordinates to become leaders too. That’s how you learn from this to become effective in any field.

  • Thanks for stopping by, Ron. It is very important that knowledge is passed on from one generation of leaders to the next.

  • Ineffective leaders also do not have positive core values (ethics or beliefs)from which they direct their behaviors. For me, this is key to being an effective leader. Great points, Paul

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith
    Author of Be the Red jacket

  • Agreed, Leanne. It’s difficult to overcome many of these traits of ineffective leaders, if one is not operating from a foundation of positive core values. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Kenneth Lim

    Great list and so true!

    I think it’s even fair to say that not only are these people “ineffective”, they can’t even be called “leaders”.

  • I’d have to agree with you, Ken. Anyone who exhibits more than a couple of these characteristics and holds themself out as a “true leader” is kidding themself. Paul

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  • Amy

    Unfortunately, you just described nearly all of my ex bosses.

  • Sorry to hear that, Amy. Sounds like you’ve had pretty bad luck with bosses.

  • Quite well.
    However, I just feel it could be more intrinsical. I hope I can discuss even more with you later.

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  • such a great share. Thanks loved the post.
    waiting for the updated content.