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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Jul 112011

Leadership: Great Leaders Often Lead From Behind

The classic image of a great leader is someone leading their troops into battle, or standing in front of a crowd, giving an inspirational speech. This classic image almost always portrays the leader out in front, at least metaphorically, if not literally.

While this standard representation is pleasing on one level, on another it is misleading. In my experience and observation, great leaders often “lead from behind”. By leading from behind, I mean to say that they get their troops, their employees, their team, or whatever the case may be as prepared as possible, they make sure they are clear on the objectives, and then they get out of the way, or they “get behind” their followers. They don’t go away completely, rather they just make way and allow the people they are leading to get in front, take charge, take responsibility and get to work. In my experience, this is what the best leaders do, as the consequences of not taking this approach doom the leader to having to ALWAYS be there in front, or their followers feel lost. Let me explain with a few concrete examples.

First, let’s say that you are the leader of a technology security consulting company. You are the founder of the company and the one who possesses the great majority of the client relationships, the technical knowledge and the presentation skills for selling and presenting client solutions. As such, and given that you have the greatest financial interest in the success of the company, you have your fingers in everything. You are, as they say, the “chief cook and bottle washer”. You sometimes take other employees with you to client presentations and you listen to their suggestions, but you always take the lead on everything and you never give your employees a chance to “own” or be in charge of anything. What are the consequences of this approach? First of all, you are a prisoner to your business and your desire to always be the one in the spotlight. You have not developed confidence in any of your employees, nor have they developed confidence in themselves. Second, you have created a culture of followers, with none having experience in leading or taking accountability for anything. What if, alternatively, you worked with your employees to develop a clear strategy and a clear set of goals, then gave them incremental leadership opportunities, “got behind them” and gave them ownership and accountability for successively more important tasks and projects? Would that likely lead to a stronger team, better results, and ultimately, more freedom for you to not have to “lead from the front” all the time? With this alternative approach, you’d be able set up a system, goals, expectations, commensurate rewards, and then set your employees loose and “lead from behind,” just giving them feedback and guidance as they reached successively higher levels of competence and became leaders themselves.

Next, let’s consider a simple leadership example on the parenting side that applies equally in the work or personal environment. Let’s say you are trying to teach your child to pay closer attention, to work hard and to not give up in challenging physical tasks. A recent example that occurred for me was out on an intensive cycling training with my son. I had taught him to draft off my back wheel so that he could avoid fighting as much wind resistance and conserve his energy to stay strong throughout our three hour high-intensity rides. He was doing pretty well and was strong enough physically, but I noticed that he was often getting distracted and falling behind. In this way, he’d lose the advantage of drafting and continue to fall further and further behind throughout the rides.

So I decided to try an experiment. I told him that now that he knew how drafting worked and how much easier it could make pedaling, he’d understand that since I was feeling a bit tired, it would be nice for me to draft behind him for a while. I wanted him to LEAD. The kid who couldn’t keep his concentration and was constantly falling off the pace was now put on the spot to set the pace for me. At first, he was a bit startled. He said, “You want ME to set the pace”? He spoke in a surprised tone, but I could tell that as much as he was a bit scared by the thought, he was also intrigued by the idea and the challenge. He liked the thought that he may be able to lead for once, instead of always following me. I said, “Yes, I’d like you to lead the next two laps. I don’t care what pace you set, but I want you to stay focused, keep pedaling and let me rest a bit by drafting off your back wheel”.

So we set off to see how it would go. You can probably guess what the results were. He set a faster pace than I had been setting, as he knew I could keep up and he wanted to impress me. He stayed focused the entire time. As we were finishing the second lap, he said to me, “You know Dad, I’m pretty proud of myself that I can take the lead and you can draft off me. I must be making great progress and getting in really good shape”. What could I say to that, but, “Yes, son, your progress is excellent”. Even better, once we were done taking a rest, I said to him, “I feel better now, you can get back on my wheel, so you can conserve your energy and stay up with me for the next hour and a half”. His response was, “No thanks, Dad. I still have quite a bit of energy and I liked taking the lead. It made me feel good. Let me continue to take the lead for a while”. For me, this was a great opportunity to continue to “lead from behind”. The collateral benefit was that, now that I was behind him and not working quite as hard at setting the pace and keeping us on track, it gave me an opportunity to observe his form, which allowed me to give him further insights into how to keep improving. This only continued to improve the quality of our workout and our progress. Leading from behind in this example, as is frequently the case, resulted in a “virtuous circle” that led to steadily improving team performance.

Finally, a common example of a leader leading from behind in a sports setting is the quarterback in American Football. The quarterback stands behind the line of scrimmage and directs the offense. From that point of view, the quarterback can see how the defense is set up and can thus make real-time adjustments. There is another layer of leading from behind in the case of American football and many other sports. In fact, it would be more accurately referred to as leading from the side(lines). The head coach, the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator are on the sidelines providing yet another point of view and adding further perspective to the planned and real-time decision making on the field of play. In fact, there is YET ANOTHER layer of perspective in many professional sports, particularly in American Football. There is another group of coaches that could be said to be “leading from above,” as they are usually located in a luxury box above the field and look down on the action, then send suggestions for adjustments to the sidelines coaches, who then communicate the messages to the quarterback and other players on the field. In the end, it’s all about having many points of view and a variety of perspectives that can lead to better decision-making and better results on the “field of play”. This approach and metaphor of leading from behind, from the side and from above can be extended to many other sports and to many other organizational settings.

One of the key takeaways is that sometimes trying to lead just from the front is not the smartest way to go. It’s important to gain insights from as many perspectives as possible. Perhaps even more important is that once you’ve provided your input and guidance to the players (or employees, etc.) on the field of play, you have to give them a chance to execute, make mistakes, and grow in their own ability to make decisions, play the game and ultimately, become leaders themselves.

Have you worked with leaders who have “led from behind”? In a business setting? In a sports setting? In a family setting? Have you done so yourself?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin