Lessons I’ve Learned from Terrible Leaders

When talking about leaders we’ve followed, the tendency is to talk about the good things that were learned; the habits developed; the techniques emulated. But, from time to time, we see or hear things that remind us of the worst behaviors we’ve witnessed from those who purported to be leaders. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from terrible leaders … the lessons that tell Great Leaders what they NEVER want to be like.

  • Don’t keep promises you’ve made – Nothing will kill employee loyalty and morale faster than broken promises. When the person who claims to be the leader (in reality, “The Boss”) cannot be trusted to keep his/her word, those who are required to follow may do so; but, they will follow reluctantly and with little faith that they will receive what has been promised. Many years ago, I met “Joe”, the owner of a company, who promised nearly every person working in his company that, when the firm moved to larger facilities, each employee would have a private office. When the “offices” turned out to be 7’ x 7’ cubicles, while “Joe” felt that he had delivered on his promise of private space, the employees felt that they had been lied to and several left the firm. LESSON LEARNED: Only promise what you know you can deliver; and, be clear what the promise will deliver.
  • Berate people who want to take vacations At a meeting with an employee who is considering a career change, the coach/mentor learned that when the employee had requested time off so that he could take his wife and kids on a one week vacation. The employee told “The Boss” a story about a contest between two lumberjacks to see who could chop the most wood in a day. At the end of the story, the lumberjack who took breaks and sharpened his axe was the winner. “The Boss” replied, “Well, you better figure out how to sharpen your axe while you work.” LESSON LEARNED: Recognize that people need breaks to refresh their minds and restore their creativity. Encourage them to take vacations and unwind. In the long-run, those breaks pay great dividends.
  • Get an overinflated opinion of your worth and wisdom – When a person is moved into a leadership position, there can be the temptation to believe that it is because “I’m the best that’s ever been … this proves that I’ve got the right to tell others what to do, to order them around, without any consideration for their feelings, talents, skills, and accomplishments.” This belief can be the shortest route to failure as a leader because it assumes that the newly promoted leader has all the answers and no one else can have a good idea. “Stephanie” shared a story with me about an encounter she had had with “The Boss” where she worked. Whenever “The Boss” disagreed with something she said, they had an honest difference of opinion. But, if she disagreed with something “The Boss” said, “The Boss” told her she was wrong. Consequently, she stopped offering ideas and feedback, ultimately taking a position at another company where her creativity could be implemented and was appreciated. LESSON LEARNED: Everyone has an opinion and ideas that can make a project more successful; a company more profitable. Listen and learn.
  • Assume that your promotion has given you license to take it easy The view of the top always looks like there is no real work being done, right? Now that you occupy that top rung of the ladder, you can sit back, tell others what to do, and watch it happen. Your job is to be “The Boss”, not to actually do the work. This was the opinion of Erin when she was promoted to a supervisory position and her actions reflected it. LESSON LEARNED: Being placed in a leadership position does not mean less work, it means more work and more responsibility. Sometimes it means being on-call 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Do it right and those you lead will follow your example.
  • Don’t ask for input unless you really want it – I once attended a meeting where the CEO invited the field managers to ask him about anything that was on their minds. For several years the company had experienced declining sales and decreased revenues. Several of the field managers felt that they had some good ideas for reversing these trends and took the CEO’s assurances that the meeting was a “Safe Zone” where anything could be asked or said without fear of retribution. The first person to ask a question concluded his question with the words, “Could we try something like this and see how it works?” As soon as the manager finished his question, the CEO began a profanity laced tirade that concluded with the words, “Why don’t you concentrate on running your $#@%& office and let me worry about running this company!” Needless to say, no one else asked any questions and the CEO walked out of the room clearly saying that he knew this idea had been a total waste of his time from the beginning. LESSON LEARNED: Don’t ask members of your team for their ideas unless you are truly willing to listen to them and give them a fair hearing.

Great Leaders learn from the best and from the worst. Being willing and able to learn from both empowers them to embrace and build upon the lessons of the best; and, to develop skills that avoid the mistakes of the worst.

Have you learned lessons from poor leaders? Click “Comment” and share what you learned.

Tom Hoisington is a speaker, trainer, and author whose goal is to provide leaders and potential leaders with tools that empower them to build teams that are creative and cost effective along with a clearer understanding of how personality types interact within those teams. He can be contacted at tom.hoisington@eagleoneresources.com