The classic pitfalls of a poor leader

The term ‘leader’ is widely used and thrown about these days; everyone wants to be one – or think they already are. But what are the classic pitfalls that people commonly fall into while executing poor leadership?

Having had spent years reading and listening to lectures on the qualities of leadership, the rule of thumb I have come to accept is that those that say they are good leaders normally aren’t. Leadership is an absolute – not a relative, i.e. you either have it or you don’t; so when a genuine leader walks into a room or stands in front of you to give a brief, it is immediately obvious. If they start to list past examples of when they displayed leadership in conversation to confirm they are the real deal, alarm bells should start ringing.

This is because a majority of want-to-be-leaders are entitled. They feel through upbringing or education or even a desired aspiration to better themselves means they deserve the title of a ‘leader’. And mistake personal accomplishments and achievements as an indication of an ability to lead; intelligence makes up only a part of the story.

So while they may hold a degree, or have been on a course for promotion or even attended an institution designed for leadership such as the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a ‘leader’ contrary to what they would like you to believe.

I don’t believe people are born leaders. It has just as much to do with experience, upbringing, personal choice and daily habits than anything else. Nature may play a part, but nurture is the key component.

In my opinion the biggest falling for leaders is double standards; people who do not adhere to the rules that they govern. And think because they displayed the character of a leader once that this will follow them for life. This is incorrect; you can lose the ability to lead by falling into bad habits just as easily as you can lose the ability to speak a language by failing to practice it.

As good as we all think we are I think that we are all guilty of the ‘diseases’ at times. It’s useful to know what they are so we can check ourselves.

1)     Lack of morale courage.  Moral courage is often a far lonelier position than physical courage and so that much harder to undertake in practice. It is doing what you know is right; not taking the easy path, not turning a blind eye etc. However, don’t confuse having moral courage with having stupid scruples.

2)     Failure to recognise that opposition can be loyal.  It is easy to forget that those who don’t agree with you, don’t say yes every time, or offer alternative views to your own can be loyal.   Likewise not everyone who agrees with you is your friend.  The best Generals surround themselves with differing points of view. It is good to have somebody who gets to the bottom of the matter, that gets a sample of views.  Also don’t underestimate the value of the ‘court-jester’.

3)     ‘Consent and Evade’.  Don’t agree to the course of action your Boss has asked you to take then go and do something different. If your staff know you’re doing it then they will think it is ok to do it to you – then no one in the organisation knows what is happening. ‘Consent and Evade’ by General Montgomery’s and Napoleon’s commanders caused them to put in place the ’directed telescope’, the use of specially selected and trusted officers as special agents or observers for the Commander. Montgomery put his Liaison Officers (LOs) in to Brigades to report back the truth.

4)     There is the need to know and you don’t need to know.  A way for a weak leader to get people to look in is to withhold information.  This type of leader is furtive with the way they put out information and to them ‘Information is Power’.  If you want people to contribute, use their initiative etc. you need to give them the information to enable them to do so.

5)     ‘Don’t bother me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind.’  We Brits make up our mind too early, then tinker with them on a personal basis, but do not make any fundamental changes. The Germans are very good at making decisions late. The Somme plan was too rigid – when people said the wire could not be cut in their area instead of HQ saying ‘”thanks for the info. What can we do about it?” they issued a demand that no criticism of the plan should be made.

6)     The quest for the 100% solution.  The occurrence of this disease is getting worse as time goes on, especially as the public perception is that all information should be available. At the Battle of Bulge General Patton judged the enemy intent and capabilities on limited information and moved his Army to cut off the German breakout.   “A good solution applied with vigour now, is better than a perfect solution ten mins later.”  In a 80/20 world what is the opposition doing whilst you wait for the 20%?.  Also if you do have 100% of the information and make a wrong decision then you are morally and legally culpable. Those that work on a well-considered hunch will probably succeed.

7)     To suppose the quality of the advice relates to the status of the person. We tend to equate the quality of the advice with the rank of the person providing it. However, wisdom and insight are not linked inextricably to rank and experience.

8)     I’m too busy to win. ‘I’ve got a lot of things to do and I’m not giving up any’.  ‘I’d like to do the job I did well a while back’.  An unnecessary focus on routine work that does not contribute to directing the team.

9)     I can do your job too, I did once and I can prove it to you by doing it now.  Avoid the temptation to slip back into your old comfort zones. This will smother your staff, and you will not have time to delegate or strategically direct.

10) Big Man, Long Shadow.  Don’t take the view that you are the be-all and end-all, that an organisation will not be able to function without you. It will and you need to create successors.