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Don’t Do That! Part One


January 25, 2017 by Lynn Nordby
Category: Leadership

Don’t Do That! Part One

In 2014 I wrote the Ultimate Leadership Top Ten List, a post that began as a tongue-in-cheek exercise to find enough ‘good leadership traits’ lists to compile a 10 to 1 countdown. This time around, I decided to look at leadership from under the rock and see what various observers identify as the worst leadership practices.

A search for 'bad leadership traits' turned up a wealth of material. Titles like How To Be A Horrible Leader-50 Bad Leadership Traits, 28 Things Leaders Should Stop Doing Immediately, and 21 Dumb Things Every Smart Leader Needs to Stop Doing Right Now promised to make coming up with an 'Ultimate Leadership Bottom Ten List' as enlightening as creating the 'Top Ten' list. There seemed to be more critics than cheerleaders. Seriously, if you’ve got bad habits on those orders of magnitude, you might want to reexamine your career path.

Without further ado, here’s the first installment of our 'bottom ten' countdown.

Ten Habits of Incompetent Managers

The author, writing for the Fast Company blog, itemizes ten “hallmarks of incompetence” in a manager.  

  • They are biased against action: He cites advertising executive, David Ogilvy who argued that “a good decision today is worth far more than a perfect decision next month."
  • They are secretive: An overarching desire for secrecy rises from defensiveness and fear of honesty, creating an unhealthy and unproductive atmosphere.
  • They are oversensitive: This often coexists with secrecy and interferes with the ability to effectively direct the organization.
  • They love procedure—a little too much: The author reminds us that rules exist to “expedite business, not ritualize it."
  • They prefer weak candidates: A weak leader feels threatened by subordinates who may be perceived as more competent than they are (or believe themselves to be).
  • They focus on small tasks: This may conceal the fact that they’re unable to do their real job or not sufficiently focused on the big picture.
  • They are allergic to deadlines: A leader should set and stick to deadlines.
  • They are unable to hire former employees: If former coworkers and employees are unwilling to work for a leader a second time, there’s something wrong.
  • They have an addiction to consultants: This is just another way to avoid decision-making and feeds the bias against action.
  • They put in long hours: For the author this is “the single biggest hallmark of incompetence.” An effective manager doesn’t need to be first in/last out every day.

This article concludes with the admonishment that even one of these traits should ring a warning bell and two should set off alarms.

The 9 Bad Habits of Highly Ineffective Leaders

CNBC’s Amy Langfield writes that leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman (Zenger/Folkman) generated nine bad habits using results from over 51,000 surveys.

The number one bad habit in an ineffective leader? Laziness—“This showed up as a failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input. Basically, such people were perceived to be sloppy in their work and unwilling to put themselves out."

Ineffective leaders also shared the following additional traits:

  • They don’t anticipate unexpected events
  • They are indecisive
  • They remain locked in the past
  • They have no strategic alignment
  • They are over-dependent
  • They are isolated
  • They lack technical depth
  • They fail to communicate the what, where, when, and how associated with their decisions

8 Bad Habits Great Leaders Know to Break

Jared Brox writes that all effective leaders know they must use their experience, education, ambition, and determination to cultivate good habits, but also to shed bad ones.

These are the bad habits that good leaders should break:

  • Making the same mistake twice
  • Accepting assumed constraints
  • Undervaluing their people
  • Failing to mentor
  • Talking at people
  • Ignoring constructive feedback
  • Failing to give recognition
  • Trying to do it all

The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives

Eric Jackson, writing in Forbes, summarizes the points made by Dartmouth professor Sydney Finkelstein, in Why Smart Executives Fail

Finkelstein's research on the spectacular failures of over 50 formerly renowned companies, such as Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Rubbermaid, and Schwinn, revealed that senior executives at all of them had seven habits in common, which were expressed via similar warning signs.

  • They saw themselves and their companies as dominating their environment (Warning Sign: A lack of respect).
  • They identified so completely with the company that there were no clear boundary between their personal interests and their corporation's interests (Warning Sign: A question of character).
  • They thought they had all the answers (Warning Sign: A leader without followers).
  • They ruthlessly eliminated anyone who wasn't completely behind them (Warning Sign: Executive departures).
  • They were consummate spokespersons, obsessed with the company image (Warning Sign: Blatant attention-seeking).
  • They underestimated obstacles (Warning Sign: Excessive hype).
  • They stubbornly relied on what worked for them in the past (Warning Sign: Constantly referring to what worked in the past).

6 Habits of A Poor Leader

Though this article by the Vanderbloemen Search Group is ostensibly directed to church leaders, poor leaders in any organization can be identified by six bad habits.  

  • They are defensive: After receiving feedback, a poor leader becomes defensive and cannot readily admit when he/she is wrong.
  • They are impulsive: A poor leader makes emotional, ill-informed decisions without adequate deliberation and concern for the consequences.
  • They are unassertive: A poor leader procrastinates, hoping others will jump in.
  • They are negative: A poor leader complains.
  • They are disorganized: A poor leader is disorganized and distracted and frustrates everyone around them.
  • They resist change: A poor leader says, “This is the way it’s always been done” rather than challenging assumptions and asking how policies and procedures can be improved.

We’re at the halfway point in the countdown. Are you starting to see some common themes among the traits these different authors haves identified? Do any apply to you?

In Part Two we’ll continue the countdown and discover the single worst management practice to avoid. Stay tuned. 


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career includes 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is a Credentialed Manager through the ICMA Voluntary Credentialing program.

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