In the business world it’s pretty easy and simple to focus on the things that make a good leader. All leaders want to be good leaders, and the best way to do so would seem to be to pursue greatness. The truth, however, is that bad leadership and good leadership look a lot alike on the surface, and the pursuit of greatness can lead a manager or executive to make choices that seem strong in the moment, but which will ultimately move the business down a path toward ruin.
Poor leadership has significant costs as well. A white paper from The Ken Blanchard Companies in 2011 indicated that through employee turnover, customer turnover, and employee productivity, poor leadership can cost the average company about 7% of its annual revenue. For big companies, this can scale up to millions of dollars in losses that could be avoided with more savvy, more effective leadership.
Bad Leaders are More Like Good Leaders Than You’d Think
The hallmarks of bad leadership can look a lot like the key points of strong leadership from the outside. Bad leaders are often just as driven as good leaders, just as enthusiastic about a company, just as focused on the future and on the bottom line. To their followers, these two types of leaders can look very much the same even as they lead their organizations to wildly disparate results.
Poor leadership often results when these same traits are married with a weak sense of reality. Many bad leaders even start as good leaders, but buy into their own hype and decide that they can do no wrong, ultimately making short-sighted or ill-informed decisions due to a sense of invincibility, a feeling of control, or an all-around swollen ego. Likewise, they may diminish the perceived impact of their failures or the circumstances around them, proving unwilling to cut their losses or play defensively when the chips are down.
Lack of Direction
One issue faced by many underperforming leaders is a lack of vision; an underperforming leader is often one who cannot set goals for the organization with an eye toward what those goals mean in the long term. A leader needs to have some idea of what the company should be, and how it will progress from what it is to that point. Likewise, a leader needs to avoid the idea that comfort is okay and that an organization is “just fine as it is”; great leaders always direct an eye toward the future, and specifically toward making the company the best possible version of itself in a reasonable time frame, in terms of everything from corporate culture to product development.
Just as important as having that vision, however, is being able to communicate it to the rest of the company in a clear and sensible manner. It’s possible to have fantastic ideas and not be able to articulate them, or worse, only articulate them in a way that invites no dialogue or leads to ambiguous policy decisions. This form of bad leadership can become particularly painful when it comes with an inability to delegate tasks effectively, as departments can often end up working at cross purposes.
Inability to Listen
Inattentiveness and inability to listen can render a leader a liability just as quickly as a lack of vision can. Good leaders listen to those around them, and if they realize that no one around them has something valuable to say about a situation, they quickly increase the size of their inner circle to compensate. They also listen to what customers are saying, and not just through product sales or surveys.
A CEO who wants to expand into Asian markets, for example, but who lacks familiarity with those cultures, should recognize this deficiency and either defer to those members of the management team who have the familiarity or find someone to help. A project manager who thinks a project process needs sweeping, technology-assisted changes should check with IT first, even if the need seems pressing. By making it clear that they value the input of others, leaders encourage people around them to perform more effectively as well.
There’s no magic bullet for leadership, no singular formula that will produce a perfect leader every time in every business context. Good leadership is evolutionary, and good leaders ultimately watch themselves carefully. Great leaders are both convinced they know what the company needs to do and certain of their need to self-criticize, or surround themselves with people who can point out their flaws clearly.
What do you think?
Have you worked under a bad leader? Have you seen someone get off to a rocky start in a leadership position, only to turn it around and come out of it better for the experience? Tell us about your experiences with leadership in the comments. If you’re interested in learning more about professional opinions of what distinguishes good leaders from bad ones, this interview and follow-up with Barbara Kellerman are a great starting point.