7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Leaders

And how to fix them

“shallow focus photography of lion at the wildlife” by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

I was a sports captain who used to lead by doing the little things. No matter the sport, I carried the water jug up and down the daunting hill we had to walk up and down for practice. I lined up all the bags, so they looked perfect for the fans and the coaches. I picked up all the cones after drills when nobody else was willing. My demeanor was always the same. I cared about what we were doing, I worked tremendously hard, and I consistently did the tasks I did not believe anybody else would do. That was however, only 95% of the time.

The other 5% of the time was when our team was facing hardship. A lack of energy, a losing streak, a series of unfortunate events. When the going got tough, I became distant. I would skip some of the mundane tasks where I normally picked up the slack, I kept to myself, and I didn’t support the best overall interests of the team.

Leaders come in all shapes, forms, colors, and sizes. My inability to rally during tough times was just one of a myriad of habits I had as a leader that was not ideal. There are fortunately many tactics out there that leaders utilize to command trailblazing teams.

But, there are also a plethora of ineffective strategies, much like my own, that drive teams to disconnect, create unhealthy conflict, and cause a lack of discipline that can prove tremendously costly in the short and long-run. These 7 ineffective leadership habits are just some of the most painstakingly dangerous styles leaders can have as they attempt to build and grow their teams and companies.


1. The Leader Criticizes Publicly

I played for 2 different soccer teams growing up. Same players, same fields, same goals. The one factor that differed between these two teams was the coach.

The Dix Hills Thunder was coached by a guy named Burt, and we won 4 state championships, 2 regional championships, and a National Bronze Medal.

The other team was coached by a guy named Alex, and we won nothing. No championships, no medals, no trophies.

Coaches get the opportunity to speak to players before, after, and at halftime of each game. The before speech is almost always a motivational pump-up to get players into the right headspace before the game. Then depending on the coach, the halftime and after game speeches are either opportunities to highlight exceptional performances or criticize subpar individuals.

Walking into a halftime speech from Alex was like awaiting the conviction of a crime you know you committed. He would denigrate, demean, and speak to specific plays in which we did not live up to his expectations. The attacks were personal, intense, and prideful for him.

Burt rather, would spend halftime praising key plays and players. It was a treat to come into a huddle and smile about the show we had just put on, on the field. More importantly, if there was a player struggling out there, I would always remember Burt putting his arm around him, and having a private conversation, rather than attacking him in front of the entire team.

Needless to say, Burt coached the winningest team I ever had the pleasure of playing on, and Alex did not.

When delivering feedback to your team, use public forums to praise, and then private conversations to criticize.


2. The Leader Takes Credit for Work that is Not Theirs

You know those paintings of the people with the abnormally big eyes? Well, the man who took credit for those paintings actually didn’t create any of them. The real painter was his wife, Margaret Keane.

In a 1986 courtroom slander case, the judge ordered the two of them to paint an image of the big eyes the public knew. The man cited a sore shoulder as reason not to participate in this silly stunt, but while he was complaining, Margaret created a beautiful big eyes portrait in 53 minutes. She was awarded $4 million and her husband was publicly shamed for his dishonesty and lack of integrity.

Give credit where credit is due. If you produce great work, take pride in your work. But, if somebody else produces great work, take pride in their work.


3. The Leader Refuses to Admit Fault

On April 20th, 2010 an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Not only was BP CEO, Tony Hayward quoted as saying,

“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest”,

but also when asked about the incident he decided to place blame rather than take ownership of the problem.

“The responsibility for safety on the drilling rig is Transocean. It is their rig, their equipment, their people, their systems, their safety processes. We will deal with these issues in the fullness of time. today we’re focusing on the response. But as I’ve said, the systems’ processes on a drilling rig are the accountability of the drilling rig company.”

This response, which by the way had nothing to do with his apologies for the incident, nor his best wishes to the families and loved ones of those who were killed on his oil rig, was deplored by the media and led to even worse problems. But, that was not the last we heard from Tony…

When something happens within your organization or on your team, take ownership. Fault can be placed on so many different factors, but the quicker and more effectively you own up to the incident, the better off and quicker you can be in the rebuilding process.


4. The Leader Values Their Own Needs More Than the Needs of the Team

“I just want my life back.”

This was an actual statement made to multiple news sources by none other than, Tony Hayward!

It was abundantly clear that in this time of company emergency, panic, and imminent destruction, Tony was much more interested about how this personally impacted himself, rather than those that he was leading. Again, no focus on the solution, no focus on ownership, and most importantly no focus on the human beings whose lives were forever altered by this event.

It is not and never will be about you.


5. The Leader is Steadfast in Their Beliefs

Reluctance to change is one of the most debilitating characteristics one can have as a leader. In General Stanley McChrystal’s new book Leaders: Myth and Reality, he speaks about one of the most inventive, imaginative, and revolutionary leaders of all-time: Walt Disney.

McChrystal explains how when the business world started to shift and more of the monetary focus of the company could be developed through licensing, partnerships, acquisitions, and royalties on consumer goods, Walt Disney wouldn’t budge. He continued to pursue the creative side of the company, making new storylines and ideas to inspire millions, but he gave up the business side. Walt’s brother actually took over as business leader of the company, building it to the powerhouse it is today.

The Disney brothers combined had a great leadership style, and it was beneficial and effective for Walt to admit his lack of business savvy and give the company control to his brother. But, as a leader himself, because he could not adjust and adapt to new ways, Walt would have been doomed.

Never be satisfied with staying the same. As the world changes, so should we, and so should our teams.


6. The Leader’s Primary Tactic is Fear

I don’t want to speak about him for too long, as just the name brings fire to my eyes, but long before the unsurprising allegations of sexual abuse, rape, and misconduct, Harvey Weinstein was mistreating not only his employees, but more so, everybody he met. He once put a reporter in a headlock before throwing him out of a party, and he was described in New York Magazine as “unbelievably hard on staff.” As seen in the news that has come up about him recently, he used threats and the fear of not advancing in their career to lure women into bed with him, and he deployed much of the same strategies with his employees.

Fear is not a leadership tactic. Fear is a safety mechanism that hides one’s own insecurities.


7. The Leader Has a Limited Definition of Success

Let’s revisit Burt and Alex to close things out. When playing on both teams, the overall goal was to win a National Championship. On Alex’s team, winning was all that mattered, so when we won, things were cheery, but when we lost, all hell broke loose.

We could play the worst game of our lives, misbehave, get in fights, let in goals to the worst team out there, but as long as we won, all was forgotten. Success for Alex came from winning, and because we did not win the National Championship, we believed we were unsuccessful.

But for Burt, just because winning a National Championship was the overall goal, it did not mean that this was the only definition of success. When playing on Burt’s team, if we lost a game, but we battled with everything we had, we got unlucky by hitting the post and a ball bouncing the wrong way, he took us into that post-game huddle and gave each and every one of us a hug because he was proud of us.

Burt knew that success was not only from winning. Burt knew that the work ethic, camaraderie, and life skills we developed on the journey to attempting to win, was what truly mattered.

It is important to clearly define success for a team. But, do not let this definition be the only marker of what drives performance.


Final Thoughts

If I could captain my high school team all over again, I would not change what I did, because then I would not have been inclined to learn about positive, transformational leadership in that way that I have today.

But, if I were to be given the opportunity to captain my team again tomorrow, in times of stress and adversity, I would line the bags up even neater, bring the water cooler down the hill even faster, and I would pick up the cones as if I were never going to be afforded another opportunity to play the game.


For more leadership thoughts, find me on Linkedin!

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