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5 Signs of Bad Leadership (And How to Correct Them)


Though the best leaders inspire their teams and help their organizations achieve incredible results, the worst ones draw the ire of their direct reports and contribute to a toxic culture.

Because you’re reading these words, you care a great deal about doing what you can to be a great leader. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five telltale signs of bad leadership—and what you can do to correct them.

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1. Leaders Who Are Morally Flexible

Dwight Eisenhower once said that the supreme quality of leadership is integrity. Without integrity, Ike argued, no real success is possible.

One of the most obvious signs of bad leadership is when leaders show moral flexibility, which stems from an overload of ego and authority. Leaders who are flexible think that their position and rank implies that their decisions will be accepted without question and their words won’t be challenged just because of who they are.

At the end of the day, people want to work for bosses who are ethical. If a leader acts with integrity, they will do the right thing at the right time in a way that is best for the business and their employees.

The average worker is more committed to leaders that they trust. On the flip side, without trust, it’s impossible for a leader to be effective. This is why there are countless stories about leaders and businesses that fail because of ethical challenges.

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2. Leaders Who Lack Self-Awareness, Fear Making a Mistakes, and Show a Propensity for Avoidance

Not  all lack of emotional intelligence manifests in obvious, observable behavior. For example, some leaders are prone to avoiding significant issues and making difficult decisions because they’re afraid to be put on the spot and make the wrong move.

Many leaders struggle with how they’re perceived. They want everyone to like them, so they develop a train of thought like this: If you don’t make a decision, you can’t make a mistake. And if you don’t make a mistake, it’s harder for people to judge you because you aren’t associated with a mistake.

The self-aware leader understands when it’s appropriate to bite their tongue and when it’s appropriate to not respond quickly to adverse stimuli. 

On the other hand, the leader who lacks self-awareness often buckles under the pressure that comes with the territory. And when they get triggered, they make an emotional decision—which is hardly ever a good one.

3. Leaders Who Misunderstand Their Authority Power and Are Narcissistic

Leadership is a we game—not a me game.

The best leaders don’t ignore what they’re responsible for. They’re just as ambitious as the next person and want to keep their self-interest in mind, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These folks want their organizations to be the best because it reflects favorably on them.

Bad leaders, on the other hand, are narcissistic. They view themselves as more important, and they exude a sense of entitlement because of it. 

In turn, this decreases their level of empathy. They start cutting people off in conversations—or cutting them out of conversations altogether.

Most people have a pretty good barometer for whether a person or leader has their best interests at heart. When leaders are narcissistic, everyone knows whom they are really looking out for: themselves. As a result, they seek the support of the yes men and the brownnosers—and ultimately the organization suffers because of it.

4. Leaders Who Promote the Wrong People

The main way to reduce stress in the workplace is by hiring and promoting the right people to begin with. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

Oftentimes, poor leaders promote blue flamers—the people who rise rapidly in the organization and are promoted without institutional knowledge or operational experience. 

These folks spend the majority of their time trying to get to the next level. And when they get there, they micromanage incessantly and are engaged in a constant internal battle to prove themselves.

Keep in mind that they are not necessarily doing any of this maliciously. They believe that their reputation and future job prospects all hang in the balance.

Unfortunately, people who are unqualified to lead are given leadership positions all the time. Not everyone has the skills needed to be an effective leader. When hiring managers overlook that, bad things happen.

5. Leaders Who Are Unaware of the Action Imperative

Ego and authority produce emotions that negatively affect decision-making. If it happens in life-and-death situations, it will certainly affect decision-making when the stakes are lower.

When left unchecked, ego and authority lead you to believe you need to insert yourself into areas of operations. This is exacerbated when leaders don’t have enough control over or faith in their subordinates.

Bad leaders forget that they appointed people to manage specific tasks and feel like they have to get their own hands dirty. 

To decide whether it makes sense for you to act, consider using some version of what the FBI calls the “Action Criteria” and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Why is this action necessary?
  2. Why is it risk-effective?
  3. Why is it acceptable?

If you can come up with robust responses to these questions, then take the action.

How to Overcome These Signs of Bad Leadership

Correcting these leadership failures isn’t as hard as you might think. All you need to do is subordinate yourself to your direct reports and make a sincere attempt to understand what’s driving their behavior.

Stay genuinely curious, and add healthy sprinkles of Tactical Empathy to the mix for good measure. At the end of the day, effective leadership is all about Tactical Empathy.

Are you ready to shed all the signs of bad leadership you may be displaying and really take your skills to the next level?