The other day a colleague passed along an article on leadership written by Michael Hyatt. The piece was titled, “The Five Characteristics of Weak Leaders” and focused on the leadership of General George B. McClellan, the first general-in-chief of the Union Army.
It detailed the weaknesses McClellan exhibited as a leader and how they ultimately led to his dismissal. The piece got me thinking about how much of what I’ve learned about good management was the result of mistakes made by leaders. In other words, sometimes it’s easier to learn what not to do than what to do.
I’ve had the opportunity to work for some very good leaders, but no one is perfect. Every leader has his or her strengths and weaknesses. It’s always great to emulate what you admire most about a great leader, but it’s also important to avoid the less admirable traits or behaviors of even the most successful leaders.
In his article, Hyatt points out that McClellan was hesitant in taking action, complained about the lack of resources, refused to take responsibility, abused his leadership position, and engaged in acts of subordination. Based on the examples Hyatt uses to demonstrate each of McClellan’s shortcomings, you can see why the Union Army performed so poorly under his leadership and why he ultimately lost his job.
What characteristics or traits have you seen from leaders that reflected poorly on them or weakened their ability to lead? Here are a few I’ve experienced during my career:
Lack of honesty. I’ve seen leaders unwilling or unable to be honest on a consistent basis, and it always leads to their downfall. It may be that they don’t have an answer so they make up one or feel that others aren’t capable of dealing with the truth. Whatever the reasons, they don’t always tell the truth, and it comes back to haunt them. People always find out the truth and when they do the leader is revealed as dishonest.
Inconsistency. If you’re a leader, you need to lead not some of the time, but all of the time. No doubt it’s a big responsibility, but it comes with the territory. Too many times I’ve seen leaders crack under the pressure of the job. They’re great at leading in great times, but when the going gets tough they disappear as a leader. A leader who can’t lead in difficult times really isn’t a leader. People need to know they can count on their leader in good times and bad.
Insecurity. There’s nothing worse than an insecure leader — that person who is consistently looking over his shoulder. He never feels like he’s up to the job and, as a result, he’s not. The insecure leader is never confident in the support he has from above or from his own people. This insecurity can be displayed in a number of ways. The leader may be indecisive, worrying that every action might lead to his dismissal. It may display itself as paranoia, concerned that someone is always out to replace him. However the insecurity displays itself, it makes the leader ineffective.
The dictator. I’ve also seen leaders who are capable in so many ways, but they’re more dictator than leader. They trust, but only a little. When decisions need to be made, the leader pretends to include everyone and accept the team’s input — as long as it’s in agreement with what he wants and how he wants it done. But if colleagues present ideas inconsistent with the leader’s, he crushes it immediately. He’s smarter, he’s stronger, he’s better than anyone and everyone on the team, and he’s going to let them know. They’re going to do it his way and that’s it, no questions asked.
Think back to all the leaders you’ve been associated with throughout your career. I’m sure you can think of a lot of great qualities they have displayed. Now think about their weaknesses and shortcomings. You should spend as much time trying to avoid those behaviors as you do trying to emulate their strengths. And think about your own leadership abilities. What could you do better or differently? Where do you fall short as a leader? Now go to work correcting those and you’ll be a better leader.