10 Characteristics of Bad Leaders and How to Learn From Them

November 24, 2021

The idea of leadership in the workplace has become confused. When we think of leaders today, we think of people who are in charge. The way we should think about leaders is the people that take care of people in their charge. Those are two fundamentally different ways of thinking.

Instead of picking leaders with the hard skills related to the job - training, experience, qualifications, track records - we need to start looking to leaders with soft skills (or as our Chief of Global Partnerships like to call them, essential skills) - empathy, vulnerability, compassion, awareness of psychological safety.

According to Gallup CEO, Jim Clifton

“The single biggest decision you make in your job, bigger than all the rest, is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits... nothing.”

Clifton points to this as the main reason your organisation is experiencing high attrition rates - bad leadership.

What are the signs of bad leadership?

The bottom line… people leave.

Your most valuable asset on the balance sheet is also the most expensive to replace and those costs skyrocket if you have continually be found, replace and train people.

Since Microsoft released its World Trend Index that brought the Great Resignation into focus, numerous other studies and reports have found the same results. The Predictive Index surveyed 2,000 employees and found that approximately 50% have thought about changing careers in the past 12 months. This increases to 63% of employees with a bad manager are thinking of leaving in the next year.

This is not a new thing.

A 2018 Udemy study of 1,000+ U.S. office workers found almost 50% of employees had quit because of a bad manager, and almost 66% believed their manager lacked proper managerial training.

If people are leaving your company, take a long hard look at your leaders before blaming the employees.

Plagues follow bad leadership in ancient Greek tales

And this isn’t a new phenomenon. Writers have been covering the topic of bad leadership for years… centuries, even.

The Greek epic poems Oedipus Tyrannos, the Iliad, and History of the Peloponnesian War all begin with the devastating effects of a plague. The plague was a tool used by ancient Greek writers as a way of assessing the ability of a leader.

For example, Calchas is praised in the Iliad as someone “who knows what is, what will be and what happened before.” Yet, Pericles the leader of Athens during the Plague of Athens in 430 BC was seen as part of the problem because he failed to see the plague coming and didn't handle it when it arrived.

The History of the Peloponnesian War recounts how Athens was unprepared to deal with the plague. The problem was compounded by the fact that Athenians were locked down behind the city walls to wait out the Spartan armies during the Peloponnesian War.

Sick people died of neglect, lack of proper shelter and of disease spreading from improper burials in an unprepared and overcrowded city. Without any strong leadership looting and lawlessness took over as people were left to fend for themselves.

In the end, Pericles himself fell victim to the plague and 30 years later the city-state he had grown to be the most powerful in the Mediterranean ceded its power to the Spartans.

If we roll it forward to the modern-day workplace, are we still making the same mistakes? Are we still putting the wrong people in charge? Are our leaders taking care of the people in their charge?

The Great Resignation would suggest not.

Here’s some red flags that will help you address this massive issue.

10 most common poor leadership qualities

1 - Know it all attitude

We tend to think of managers and leaders in work as being incredibly knowledgeable people about the job. And in most cases this is right. However, that’s not always the case. 

The Peter principle is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter, which people will be promoted to "a level of respective incompetence": 

Employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another. For example, the top sales person who was great at closing deals is promoted to head of sales and is now managing a team of people, a completely different role and skill-set 

Really brave leaders won’t be afraid to hire people that know more than them or develop employees so they can become leaders themselves.

2 - Lack of customer focus

If your leaders are not focused on keeping and growing your customers, what’s the point? 

Customers are your ultimate source of knowledge. They tell you why your products are worth buying and more importantly they’ll tell you when things could be better. 

Virtually every job that people do can be seen as improving the lives of customers, even if only in small ways. Therefore, every job that people do can be made meaningful by focusing on the ways in which it improves the lives of customers, including maybe even especially the leadership in the company. 

3 - Inability to create a company culture 

Culture is the secret sauce that we can point to when things go well or blame when nobody wants to work for us. Leaders need to help develop the culture starting with teams and permeating throughout the whole organisation. And if it’s not working, leaders need to be part of the solution.

The vast majority (about 70% according to Margaret Heffernan) of companies that embark on trying to change their culture fail. Despite us knowing that culture is our secret sauce for success, most of us have no idea how to create it or maintain it.

Our blog on team culture will give you some solid advice on how to create an effective team culture.

4 - Lack of ambition/vision

If you’ve had the courage to stand up and lead and know the direction you want to go, make sure people understand the ambitions you have and the vision you’re chasing after. It’ll make it easier to follow if they know why.

It stands to reason that the clearer we can see what we are setting out to achieve, the more likely we are to achieve it. The exciting and ambitious the ask, the greater the dopamine hit. 

The best visions might be the most ambitious ones that we may never actually reach, but we are more willing to go along for the ride. Each point in our journey is an opportunity to feel like we’re making progress toward something bigger than ourselves.

Of course, we always worry about reaching too far… 

“And you ask ‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling, ‘What if you fly?’”
- Erin Hanson

5 - Poor communication

Humans function much better when uncertainty is removed. The greatest way of removing uncertainty is through communication. It’s essential that leaders can communicate more than just the facts that people probably already know. 

Communication is great when things are going well. It is essential when things are going poorly.

The Predictive Index survey found that that the three biggest deficits managers had were  “Effective communicator”, “Drives team morale”, and “Asks for feedback”.

Don’t just assume that people will get along or that leaders are delivering the right messages.

Pulse surveys and employee check-ins are great ways to assess your levels of communication in the workplace.

6 - No adaptability

If there is one positive takeaway from the pandemic it has taught us that we can’t take anything for granted. In the last few years in order to survive and advance some companies had to adapt to adverse market conditions - brewers started manufacturing hand sanitiser, clothing companies started making PPE.

Other companies chose to protect those at the top, release their employees at the bottom and put their hand out for a government bailout.

Unless we are willing to adapt we won’t survive.

7 - Micromanagement

This is a big red flag. 

If you want to crank up the stress levels in the workplace, micromanagement by the leadership is a great way to do it.

Leaders should be clearing the way for employees to do great work not inserting themselves into the middle of things. It could also signal a lack of trust between the leader and their charges, which is also another red flag. It can also signal a lack of certainty about their own role.

8 - Avoiding conflict

Every great relationship requires a bit of constructive conflict. 

If you believe that when things work it should be easy, you suffer from what Carol Dweck would call a closed mindset. 

“A no-effort relationship is a doomed relationship, not a great relationship. It takes work to communicate accurately and it takes work to expose and resolve conflicting hopes and beliefs. It doesn’t mean there is no “they lived happily ever after,” but it’s more like “they worked happily ever after.”

There are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way. The victory comes when you can achieve a win:win scenario. There is no victory in the absence of constructive conflict.

9 - No accountability

A by-product of the know-it-all attitude is the lack of accountability when things go wrong.

Accountability is not hard, just put your hand up and own your decisions and their outcomes.

Our CEO James, wrote a comprehensive blog on why accountability is important in leadership.

A recent study by Professor Gary Latham of the Australian Graduate School of Management found that business leaders who possessed the qualities of accountability and integrity were more likely to outperform their peers.

10 - Missing executive presence

We know that CEO pay has gone off the charts compared to the average worker in the last number of decades. According to Simon Sinek in “Leaders Eat Last” the reason we are offended by the exorbitant and disproportionate compensations of some of the leaders has nothing to do with the numbers. It has to do with this social contract deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. 

If our leaders are to enjoy the generous pay associated with their position, then we expect them to offer us protection. 

“The problem is, for many of the overpaid leaders, we know that they took the money and perks and didn’t offer protection to their people. In some cases, they even sacrificed their people to protect or boost their own interests. This is what so viscerally offends us. We accuse them of greed and excess only when we feel they have violated the very definition of what it is to be a leader.”

I’m not simply referring to walking the floors so people can see the CEO. That won’t make a difference if they still carry on as above.

I’m talking about real leadership... Like Dan Price.

In 2015 Dan made $70,000 the minimum wage at his company gravity payments, meaning he had to take a pay cut.

18 months ago he changed the ways of working at Gravity to fully remote.

Dan may not be in everyones' inbox everyday or turning up at their desk for weekly catch-ups but I’m sure all Gravity employees see Dan for the great leader that he is.

The Trickle-Down Effect of Good (and Bad) Leadership

In 1891 George Merck Senior moved his family to America and established Merck & Co. Pharmaceutical company. His vision for the company was simple - to help sick people get better.

In 1920 George Merck Junior took over the running of the company. After seeing how World War I had torn societies apart, George Junior wanted to make a difference in the world.

As Neil Gibb describes in “The Participation Revolution” he made a move that marks him among the leaders of extraordinary companies. He decided to steer Merck towards something bigger than commercial growth. Just like his dad, he wanted Merck to “alleviate disease and suffering.”

In a letter to all the new hires George Junior wrote 

“We never try to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered, the larger they have been. “

Merck was basically telling employee to remember their purpose and if they achieved that, the rest falls into place.

If we jump forward to the 1970s, William Campbell and Mohammed Aziz are not working in the research departments in Merck.

Campbell have created ivermectin, a powerful drug so effective at killing worms and healing sores in animals it became the best selling veterinary drug in the world.

Aziz had previously worked for the World Health Organisation specifically tasked with looking for a cure for river blindness, something that affected 10s of millions of people in Africa and South America. 

The two men got talking and realised the parasites that caused river blindness had a lot in common with the parasites that ivermectin eradicated. 

Both men realised they’d stumbled on a ‘aha’ moment but there were lots of obstacles to pursuing a project to cure river blindness.

Firstly, neither of them were supposed to be working on that project. Secondly, the people it effected were poor and wouldn’t be able to afford it. Thirdly, the governments of those countries were also poor and mired in debt and wouldn’t be able to fund a treatment program. And lastly, why would senior management sign off funding for a project with no commercial appeal?

Because they worked at Merck, both men took the idea to the Head of Research, Roy Vagelos. 

At probably every other pharmaceutical company the decision would have been a no. The project made zero commercial sense. 

However, this was Merck that only existed to “alleviate disease and suffering.”

Vagelos greenlit the project and spent $200 million dollars developing Mectizan, a cure for river blindness. In 1987 Vagelos became CEO and donated the drug to a not for profit organisation to carry on the treatment program. By 2011, 30 million people a year were getting Mectizan doses effectively eradicating the disease. In 2015, William Campbell received the Nobel prize for Medicine.

All of this happened because the Merck organsation had a clear vision and their leaders knew why they worked for the company, “alleviate disease and suffering.” The Mectizan project happened decades after George Merck Junior had died. Campbell, Aziz and Vagelos carried on the vision that the Merck family had started. They weren’t being told what to do.

Not that it matters for this story, but the Merck share price during the 1970s and 1980s sky rocketed even though the company was ploughing huge sums of money and people hours into a project that would never earn a cent.

What to do next

If you liked this blog post why not check more from our Productivity & Engagement category and start putting some effective leadership into action.


Gus Ryan
Head of Marketing. Runner of kms, watcher of rugby while drinking a beer.
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