#048: The 5 Characteristics of Weak Leaders [Podcast]

I have worked for more weak leaders than strong. I’ll bet you may have, too. However, I believe you can learn just as much from a weak leader—maybe more.

Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam

I was reminded of this again when I read Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is a page-turning account of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and his political genius.

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Though Lincoln was a strong leader, he wasn’t perfect. He occasionally selected men for public service who were unworthy of his trust. One such individual was General George B. McClellan, commander of the “Army of the Potomac” and, eventually, first general-in-chief of the Union Army.

General McClellan had significant character flaws. The good news for us is that they serve as warning signs to us. Ultimately, these flaws cost him dearly. He lost Lincoln’s confidence, he lost his job, and he later lost a run for the White House (against Lincoln).

McClellan’s weakness as a leader can be attributed to five fundamental flaws, and these are flaws that appear consistently in weak leaders.

  • Flaw #1: Weak leaders hesitate to take definitive action.
  • Flaw #2: Weak leaders complain about a lack of resources.
  • Flaw #3: Weak leaders refuse to take responsibility.
  • Flaw #4: Weak leaders abuse the privileges of leadership.
  • Flaw #5: Weak leaders engage in acts of insubordination.

President Lincoln had the patience of Job. He gave General McClellan numerous opportunities to correct his behavior and redeem himself. But in the end, McClellan either could not or would not do so. He left the President no choice but to relieve him of his duties.

In this episode, I also talk about how to deal with those flaws in yourself and in those who are leading you.

Listener Questions

  1. Alan Williams asked, “How do I know if I’m doing a good job as a leader?”
  2. Blessing Mpofu asked, “How do you lead people who are smarter and stronger than you in areas you are not?”
  3. Brandon W. Jones asked, “How do you deal with a leader who has a Jekyll and Hyde personality?”
  4. James Divine asked, “How can I influence other leaders who have a difficult time being courageous?”
  5. Jonathan Lazar asked, “How do I know if the problem is me as a leader who needs to grow or if the problem is an employee who needs to go?”
  6. Joseph Iliff asked, “Have you had any experience with leaders who are quick to blame and slow to accept responsibility?”
  7. Kent Lapp asked, “What do you do if you feel you are working for a weak leader and you are actually a better leader?”
  8. Robert Farrington asked, “Do you have any tips in giving feedback to new leaders—perhaps someone you work for or someone external to the company?”

Special Announcements

  1. My business partner, Ken Davis, and I will be hosting the SCORRE Conference, May 6–9 at the beautiful Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Florida.

    Whether you are a professional speaker—or just want to be—this conference will teach you how to prepare with focus, deliver with confidence, and speak with power. Bottom line: it’s a conference designed to maximize the impact of your speeches.

    Honestly, this conference has had a bigger impact on my career than any conference I have ever attended. It revolutionized my speaking and his influenced every aspect of my communication, including my blogging and podcasting.

    If you are serious about becoming a better speaking, you simply must attend. You can find out more at SCORREConference.tv.

  2. If you are considering launching your own platform, you need to start with a self-hosted WordPress blog.

    This is not as complicated as it sounds. In fact, I have put together a step-by-step screencast on exactly how to do it. You don’t need any technical knowledge. I walk you through the entire process in exactly 20 minutes.

    And, for a limited time, Bluehost—the hosting company I personally recommend—is offering an amazing deal to my listeners. You can get web hosting for as little as $3.95 a month.

  3. My next podcast will be on the topic of “The 3 Ingredients of Job Satisfaction.” If you have a question on this subject, please leave me a voicemail message. This is a terrific way to cross-promote your blog or website, because I will link to it, just like I did with the callers in this episode.

Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode here, courtesy of Ginger Schell, a professional transcriptionist, who handles all my transcription needs.

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Question: Do you see any of these five flaws in your own leadership? Where are you struggling? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://harrisonjonathan.wordpress.com/ Jonathan Harrison

    Flaw #1 hits close to home – perfectionism for wanting to launch a perfect product or result has really tied me down in the past. Thanks your great advice, along with many others, I am making great progress.
    Just last month I launched my own blog, in spite of not being as ready and polished as I imagine it will one day become. Many times the antidote to overcoming hesitation, as just to get out there and do something!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Glad to see you are making progress, Jonathan. Keep shipping!

  • CharliePharis

    OK, Michael…as the old saying goes: “Now you’ve stopped preaching and gone to meddling!” Thanks for the timely and necessary reminder for leaders.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Hahahaha. He’s gettin’ in our business. :)

  • http://forthisisthetime.blogspot.com/ Esther Aspling

    Thanks so much for a simple and quick way to evaluate myself! I can easily see areas that I could improve on, even at home, okay, especially at home. :-)


    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Much room for application at home, that’s for sure!

    • Jim Martin

      Esther, I think some of Michael’s best podcasts often were first applicable to me at home.

  • colbycm

    Michael, great post for today. I think where I find this the hardest is to be in an organization that refuses to allow leaders to address other leaders.This makes being a good leader even more difficult. Not as an excuse, but I find when I am ready to act, I need organizational support (especially from Human Resources). Is that a common occurance?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yes, very common. I would treat it as a game. What do you need to do to get them on-board? Break the code and you are home free.

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  • http://LeadershipDoneRight.com/ Brandon Jones

    Great podcast Michael! Thank you so much for answering my question!

    Your recommendation to remain steady when you have a Jekyll and Hyde leader is great advice. After hearing you say that I thought about some of the people that have worked very successfully with that leader and they do exactly as you mentioned.

    Since posting my question, I have observed how others interact with the Jekyll and Hyde leader. I noticed that those who work with him effectively are very perceptive to his body language. When he is in a great mood, they pick up on his mannerisms very quickly. At the same time, when he is angry or it would not be a good time to talk to him, they pick up on that quickly as well. There is a lot you of communication that happens through body language.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yes, absolutely. You have to be really attentive to body language. The beautiful thing is that this is a wonderful skill that will serve you well in other contexts.

  • Octavia Wolton

    Yes, flaws one and two, particularly rang bells with me. Some great listener questions too: reassuring that people are confronted with similar challenges!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      I thought the listener questions were excellent today, as well. Especially Blessing’s question: How do you lead people who are smarter and more talented than you?

      • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

        I thought that was a great question too. I knew I could answer him, because I am an expert in this area. I have always had smarter more talented people working for me!

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    For me it would definitely be the definite action one. Sometimes I can second guess myself when I can clearly see the solution. Great episode and great questions Michael.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      For what it’s worth Kimanzi, I see you as being very deliberate and assertive. To an outsider like me, your speaking and author success clearly suggests that you’re a positive man of action!

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    I struggle most with taking definitive action, namely when my decision could potentially wound someone else. Even if I know it’s the right decision, I have the hardest time moving forward because of the pain it will cause. I’m (slowly) learning my inaction actually creates more pain in the long run. Gentle but forthright honesty is truly the compassionate approach.

    • http://harrisonjonathan.wordpress.com/ Jonathan Harrison

      As a fellow people pleaser, I can really relate to your comment, Michele. I also have found the value in realizing that honesty (with tact) creates greater long term (and many times, short term) results.

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Agree, Jonathan. I had an experience in the past year that proved this to be absolutely true.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Awesome authenticity Michele – all I can say is that every interaction I’ve had with you has been an absolute pleasure and delight. You are an outstanding leader and role model!

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Thank you, Tor. Very kind of you.

  • Jessica

    Flaw five: engaging in acts of insubordination is the one I struggle with the most. What great reminders of what not be as a leader. Thank you for all your advice.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Great transparency in your comment Jessica – I applaud you! Regrettably I’ve exhibited each of the flaws at various times during my career. I guess it’s always easier to see the flaws in others – thanks for the reminder to look inward first!

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      That’s quite honest Jessica! While most of us have committed this flaw, few are willing to own up to it. I’m glad you’re able to see the flaw and know that it needs to be corrected.

      What steps can you take to stop acts of subordination?

  • Carla Lark

    Good morning Michael! This for me was really a WOW (Wealth of Wisdom) moment. I really needed to hear this when I woke up this morning. I had just been meditating on the deficits in my leadership as a Wife, Mother, and Business Woman. I must say with tears in my eyes, listening to your podcast this morning has literally changed my perspective. It is easy to behave in ways contrary to what we desire because our behavior will ultimately always reflect our true believes about ourselves. I teach this to my clients as a Life Strategist and Marriage & Family Therapist Intern. However, I had not unmasked for myself my inability to generate the help and resources I need to move forward until your podcast confirmed for me my fear of in sufficiency.
    Thanks so much for your insight and stewardship!!!

    • Jim Martin

      Carla, thanks for your comment. So glad to hear that Michael’s podcast helped to change your perspective. This sounds like a real breakthrough for you.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      I like the WOW definition – in his book Platform, Michael recommends that all of us start with WOW as we develop content, products or messages. I think your definition of WOW is awesome!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Carla. I’m so glad that you found this episode helpful!

  • http://dadcrowd.com/ Jon Skelly

    Great podcast, Michael! I’ve worked for a few leaders who struggle with taking definitive action in a very specific way – something I’ve heard called “analysis paralysis”. They incessantly gather information (out of fear that they may be missing some detail) until they are either forced to make a decision (which provides them with an out) or someone champions a decision (which provides a warm body to throw under the bus, if necessary). The balance between comprehensive information and timely information can be difficult to find, but I think the ability to find that sweet spot is a strength for many great leaders.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Great point Jon! All of us must make decisions absent perfect information. I like the military model that instructs its leaders to make decisions once they have 70% of the information needed.

  • http://tontowilliams.posterous.com Alan

    Great podcast Michael, and thanks for answering my question, both points I can put into action straight away, plus I’ve picked up some other great points from this episode which will help me a lot. Thank you!

  • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

    I really appreciate this podcast and the five flaws – they’re spot on. During my 24+ career in corporate America and the news business I’ve reported directly to eight different CEOs. Only two were exceptional – the rest routinely manifested the five flaws in varying degrees. The absolute worst one exhibited all five, plus he was an incorrigible bully. Thanks for helping us all avoid the pitfalls ourselves!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I worked for a bully once, too. I put up with it for months and finally resigned. It just wasn’t worth the abuse.

      • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

        Unbelievable! It’s vexing to consider how some individuals continue their bullying ways from the school classroom to the corporate boardroom.

  • http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/ Matt McWilliams

    Powerful quote Michael: Weak leaders hire fast & fire slow. Great leaders hire slow & fire fast.

    I am a Civil War buff and recently watched Gods & Generals and Gettysburg for the ~10th time each.

    McClellan and George Meade (along with the first 4-5 Union generals) are interchangeable. They all made these same mistakes.

    They were slow to act, complained constantly, blamed others, abused their privileges, and were insubordinate.

    They also all demonstrated one other flaw…

    They failed to listen to the troops, majors, and others below them, even when their suggestions were blatantly obvious.

    Meade attacked Fredericksburg by crossing a wide river on pontoons, directly in the line of Confederate fire. I am not an expert on war strategy, but that was just dumb. But, at least three generals told him it was a bad decision. They argued for a different crossing. They were all right. But he was stubborn.

    Good lessons from some tragic historical figures.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Awesome point Matt – great leaders solicit input from others and hire to fill their personal gaps. The best leaders recognize that they don’t have all the answers on their own and they also know that teams make better decisions than individuals. Thanks for a great comment!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for sharing that example, Matt. I love Civil War history too. It is so instructive!

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    I’ve struggled on and off with flaw #1. There’s that fear, the resistance, that tells me I’m not ready or my product isn’t good enough. Heck, it took me a year or two before I started blogging when I KNEW I should be. Thankfully, through the help of some great mentors, I’m overcoming this flaw and stopping the hesitating.

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    I forgot to ask a question Michael. You mentioned that strong leaders are slow to hire and fast to fire. How fast should a leader be to fire and should they work with the employee before firing them? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely. As a leader, you have to make sure you have provided the necessary training. Then you have to have a process for remediation. State your expectations. Explain where they are falling short. Then put into place a program for improvement.

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  • http://chadmbarrett.com Chad M. Barrett

    Michael – This is one of my favorite podcast episodes. I am reading Team of Rivals right now, so your connections to that book are fascinating. I’ve long been a “non-fan” of Gen. McClellan, so I find your use of his actions as examples of what not to do to be especially brilliant. Thanks!!

    • Jim Martin

      Glad you enjoyed this podcast, Chad. This may be one of my favorite podcasts as well.

  • Peter Matthews

    Hi Michael,

    Wondering what your top 3 – 5 Leadership book titles are. Thanks for your great work!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks. Here is a list of my recommended books.

      • Peter Matthews


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  • Terra James

    Hey Michael, I just started listening to your podcasts and LOVE it as I am a huge fan of leadership philosophy and
    how it affects your surroundings. By day I am a senior accountant for a large
    commercial builder in Minneapolis. By night and weekend I am an elite cyclist
    on a national racing team. My teammates are scattered all over the US, which
    makes it hard to feel united when we meet for a race. In my opinion our
    abilities to unite and work well as a team with clear vision lay heavily on the
    help of our team manager. I know his heart is in the right spot, but his
    leadership skills could be improved. For the most part we are racing as
    individuals with lack of team meetings and clarity about our jobs. Sometimes
    our communication from the manager can be negative which is like a disease
    within a team. I think he recognizes my skills as a leader and would like me to
    help in this order along with other responsibilities. However this is really
    difficult with limited time as working full time and training full time is a

    This podcast pointed out a few things I
    do need to take responsibility on. I’ve gotten a lot out of it and plan to
    approach a few things in a different light. If you have any further suggestions
    or comments for me, I’m all ears.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/quintessential.leader Quintessential Leader

    Definitely an good post, Michael. I also read “Team of Rivals” with great interest and blogged about the quintessential leader traits that I gleaned from “Lincoln,” in my blog post, http://quintessentialldr.com/2013/01/16/quintessential-leadership-lessons-in-steven-spielbergs-2012-movie-lincoln/. My post provides complimentary information to your post here.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/inspirationalstrength Billie Crooks

    Michael, thanks for a great podcast. Accepting responsibility and self reflection is key in leadership, also in developing leaders. In order to become #1 in your field of expertise you must be able to get along with many different types of people and leadership styles. This was right on point and I plan to share with others I know who are striving to become better leaders.

  • Kathy Trauger

    Michael, I am a new follower of your podcasts and blogs, thus the belated response. This was a
    great post. What advice do you have for those who serve in a leadership position on a community board or commission or as an elected official. Often, those individuals must work within an existing group or structure. Often forward motion is painfully slow or non-existent. Have you worked with such groups and what words of wisdom can you share?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Kathy.

      I would start the same place I would start with any group: vision. I would probably start by listening, finding out what’s working and what is not, and trying to find a compelling cause.

      • Kathy Trauger

        Good advice,Michael. Begin with the end in mind as Stephen Covey said. Listening – true listening – to each other and to constituents is critical. It is through listening that we can find the common ground and begin to move forward. Thank you. I am enjoying your blogs/podcasts very much and sharing with others via tweets, Facebook, etc. Your views and help are very refreshing!