5 Characteristics of Weak Leaders (and How Not to Be One)

Sometimes you learn from positive role models. Often you learn from negative ones. This is one of the reasons I love to read history—you inevitably get both.

5 Characteristics of Weak Leaders

After watching Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, I decided to review Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I had read this book a few years ago. It is a page-turning account of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and his political genius.

At the beginning of Lincoln’s first term, he appointed each of his former Republican rivals—those who had run against him for his party’s nomination—to cabinet posts. The narrative demonstrates his amazing ability to tap into a broad array of perspectives and create alignment among those who often disagreed violently with one another.

Unfortunately, Lincoln’s leadership was not 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 that I believe serve as warning signs to anyone in leadership. Ultimately, these cost him dearly: He lost Lincoln’s confidence, his job, and a run for the White House (against Lincoln). Worse, they prolonged the Civil War and cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

Here are the five flaws I jotted down as I read the book:

  1. Hesitating to take definitive action. McClellan was constantly preparing. According to him, the Army was never quite ready. The troops just needed a little more training. In his procrastination, he refused to engage the enemy, even when he clearly had the advantage. He could just not bring himself to launch an attack. When Lincoln finally relieved him of his duties, he famously said, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
  2. Complaining about a lack of resources. He constantly complained about the lack of available resources. He didn’t have enough men. His men weren’t paid enough. They didn’t have enough heavy artillery. And on and on he went. The truth is that, as a leader, you never have enough resources. You could always use more of one thing or another. But the successful leaders figure out how to get the job done with the resources they have.
  3. Refusing to take responsibility. McClellan blamed everyone else for his mistakes and for his refusal to act. He even blamed the President. Every time he suffered a defeat or a setback, someone or something was to blame. He was a master finger-pointer. Great leaders don’t do this. They are accountable for the results and accept full responsibility for the outcomes.
  4. Abusing the privileges of leadership. While his troops were struggling in almost unbearable conditions, McClellan lived in near-royal splendor. He spent almost every evening entertaining guests with elaborate dinners and parties. He insisted on the best clothes and accommodations. His lifestyle stood in distinct contrast to General Ulysses S. Grant, his eventual successor, who often traveled with only a toothbrush.
  5. Engaging in acts of insubordination. McClellan openly and continually criticized the President, his boss. He was passive-aggressive. Even when Lincoln gave him a direct order, he found a way to avoid obeying it. In his arrogance, he always knew better than the President and had a ready excuse to rationalize his lack of follow-through.

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.

These same character flaws afflict many leaders today. The best safeguard is self-awareness.

By the way, you might want to read this post with your team and then discuss it. Even better, read the book and discuss it.

Question: Do you see any of these flaws in your own leadership? What can you do to correct them now—while you still have time? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Wpgunapala

     like this.it is a eye opener for future leaders.

  • Wp.gunapala

    it is a lesson for org heads.

  • Roband06

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m a history buff and I love discussing any kind of war. Most movies and books spend a lot of time talking about how glorious this war was. I watched a documentary talking General McClellan. The situation with him was that he wasn’t qualified for the job to begin with. As you stated, that was a flaw on President Lincoln’s part. I remember correctly, he did not earn his position, he was appointed to that position based on his political affiliation. He did not have a resume of great leadership to prove himself.

  • Isaac_ak

    this is a hidden secret,been divulge, and if its critical look into you ll discover that majority of people try to put blame when they fail,but this ave made me understand that planing ,focus is the answer.

  • http://www.pauljolicoeur.com/ Paul Jolicoeur

    We all have flaws in the way we lead others. What is important is doing what we can to identify them and moving to action to strengthen those areas. One way to help identify them is to put people around you that will speak honestly to you.

  • Jenniferjfonseca

    Guilty. I am overcoming allowing perfection to be the obstacle of my progress.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      You are not alone! I think we need a support group.

  • Tracey L. Moore

    Very interesting. I saw the movie, Lincoln, so this drew me in.  As far as my weakness as a leader goes, right now, I am just leading myself at the moment! I just started a homebased business. My main leadership flaw is failure to take definitive action in a timely fashion. I am one of those people that has to research everything thoroughly before I act. Sometimes you need to go with your gut. Research can be a form of procrastination. I have asked God to help me with that one.  I am much better than I used to be, but not where I need to be. I will keep what you shared in mind as I go forward. Thanks again for a very pertinent post.
    Tracey L. Moore
    Author of the upcoming book, Oasis For My Soul: Poems and Inspirational Writings for Spiritual and Personal Growth

  • 1rickcraig

    Lot like surfing we learn how to ride each wave as we are riding it! And the more waves we ride the better we get at ridding the Big Waves! Preparation, Practice, and winging the rest may help us ride the Big Waves eventually!

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  • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

    Thanks, Colin. I appreciate your interest. But, unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth for any additional writing. All the best.

  • Momasita

    Michael, great job capturing important make or break leadership action! I am grateful my first mentor as a young supervisor modeled servant leadership. He would do the most humble, lowly tasks and refused to let us refer to him as ‘boss’. His example made me such a better leader today.

    When I observe others doing #4 Abusing privileges of leadership, it makes me want to do #5. What helps me hold my tongue is knowing such negativity is a huge moral killer.

  • Hunter Hodge

    Great post! I absolutely love history (it’s my favorit subject!) because there is so much to learn. Not only about different people, cultures, and understanding why the world is the way it is today, but also to learn about invaluable leadership, business, and life principles. 

    You can also gain a greater appreciation for seeing the hand of God in everything. It’s truly an amazing experience to study history as a story to learn from rather than facts to recite. 

  • Edrin Williams

    Great post, Michael! I’d definitely fall into category #1.  I’m a learner, and when it comes to leadership or life, in general, I often hesitate to move forward because I feel the need to learn more first.  I don’t feel the need to know everything about a situation, but I do feel the need to know “more,” which is very subjective – a requirement that’s nearly impossible to meet.  

    I’ve recently begun to share this truth with a team of buddies with whom I share life and ministry, and I’ve asked them to help keep me accountable.  They give nudges and encouragement regularly.  Internally, I’m remaining aware of my hesitation and starting to press forward in spite of it.  It’s courage, in my opinion.  The feeling has not gone away, but I’m forcing myself to take the next step anyhow! 

  • http://www.projectmanagerpad.com/ Pmpad

    Mike, you make great points here. 
    Personally, I consider number #3 as the most detrimental for a team and the top offender to correct.I am not a CEO trainer, I just have sound experience as senior project manager for large projects in heavy industry. And I’ve learned over years that relationships can determine the outcome of a project. Likewise, a persistent lack of trust and finger pointing, in a vicious circle, is going to spread and turn a work environment into a hell.

  • Idrissi Khalid

    I disagree with No 5…a good leader should have the ability to kindly share his views with his boss even when they are contradicting him…it is only after that that he can implemente what was finally decided…

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  • Joe Wathika

    Wonderful message Michael. Thank You for sharing your wisdom I am a junior in High School and I have learned so much from you. The podcast on focusing on your strengths is my favorite. Quick question; Does Thomas Nelson offer scholarships to high school students?. Thank You. Looking forward  to your next podcast.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for your kind words.

      No, I’m afraid Thomas Nelson doesn’t offer scholarships. It does a lot of work with various charities and causes but this is currently not a focus.
      Thanks again.

  • Gabriel Germain

    Thanks for this article. I’m still a young graphic designer, but in the agency I work in, my leader had put me in a leadership position as well. We work as a team.

    For me 1,2 and 5 are the most relevant in my situation. I have to learn from this article.
    But, one thing I always knew. Arrogance and pride can’t exist in a company. Only solutions and teamwork are essentials.

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  • http://joewickman.com/ Joe Wickman

    This just affirms my belief that the best solution to most problems is “swift and blinding violence”. It may be the right decision every time, but at least it’s a decision.
    haha – Just kidding of course.
    But seriously, great post!

  • Phil Maguire

    Well, as you asked, I did used to suffer from number 1. But I decided to adapt the Ready-Fire-Aim approach and it is working much better because I am getting early feedback about whether a direction is worth traveling. I am still a rubbish leader so I would suggest that your list is incomplete. I would guess that it is because I really had no burning desire to be a leader, it just seemed to be the only way to get things done. I have since discovered Derek Sivers TED talk on being a better follower and decided to adapt the Leading-by-Serving approach. After all, it is only 2,000 years old

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.gregory.90226 Richard Gregory

    Wonderful message.

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  • southernwonder

    There is considerable wisdom presented here my Mr. Hyatt from Abe Lincoln. One I think that adds to this reservoir is Ronal Reagan’s “Trust but Verify”. We know who helped us win the Cold War, right?

  • John T. Jeffery

    Critics of Gen. George B. McClellan fail to take many factors into consideration including:

    1) the failures of the civilian command and control on the highest levels to support him as agreed during the Peninsula campaign early in the war,

    2) Pinkerton’s grossly inflated intelligence estimates of enemy strength that McClellan depended on,

    3) the prosecution of the Virginia campaigns at the end of the war under Gen. Grant (1864) which vindicated what McClellan has insisted on years before (1862), and, last, but certainly not least,

    4) Gen. Lee’s own estimation of McClellan as an opponent when questioned after the war.

    The following recent article and documentation concerning the bloodiest day in American history, when Gen. McClellan was in command of the Union forces in the Battle of Antietam, adds to the evidence that the typical historical assessment of McClellan is defective.

    Gene Thorp, “In defense of McClellan at Antietam: A contrarian view” (7 SEP 2012), on The Washington Post athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/…/79a0e5cc-f131-11e1-892d… [accessed 8 FEB 2014].
    See on the “Lost Order” (Gen. Robert E. Lee’s S.O. 191), Rebel casualties and Rebel strength: Graphic “Defending McClellan: In depth” which accompanies Thorp’s article on The Washington Post athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/…/mcclellan…/index.html [accessed 8 FEB 2014].

    See also: Gene Thorp, “In defense of McClellan: A contrarian view” (2 MAR 2012), on The Washington Post athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/…/27/gIQAeSLqmR_story_2.html [accessed 8 FEB 2014].

    The arm-chair “generals” and Monday morning “commanders” among McClellan’s postwar critics continue to repeat refrains about him having the “slows”, not wanting to fight, etc. that demonstrate a failure to do objective research, and to properly assess all of the evidence.

    Warren W. Hassler’s book, General George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union (n.p.: Louisianna State University Press, 1957; reprinted 1974 by Greenwood Press), provides documentation and arguments that most Civil War historians either are ignorant of, or fail to reckon with. Available on Amazon athttp://www.amazon.com/General…/dp/B000HRZ8E4/ref=sr_1_3… [accessed 8 FEB 2014].

    See also the following:

    James M. Ridgway Jr., Little Mac: Demise of an American Hero (n.p.: Xlibris Books, 2000).

    James M. Ridgway Jr., Apprentice Killers: The War of Lincoln and Davis (n.p.: PublishAmerica, 2002).

    The McClellan Society at http://www.georgebmcclellan.com [accessed 2 JUN 2014].

    Compiled by:

    John T. Jeffery
    SFC, USA (Ret.)
    1st BN 109th INF

    Nunquam Obliviscere – Memento Semper!
    (“Never Forget – Always Remember!”)

    PAARNG (1989-2010)
    Deployed with: B 1-109th (M) INF
    Attached to: HHC 1-172nd AR, VTARNG, Task Force Saber
    Deployed to: Ramadi, Iraq (OIF, 2005-2006)

    U. S. Army (1970-1973)
    Deployed with: HMS Co, 63rd Maint BN, USARV
    Deployed to: Quang Tri & Da Nang, RVN (1971)

  • DJ William

    What an incredibly shallow understanding of the War, Lincoln, and most of all, George B. McClellan. Perhaps if you studied the topic instead of just latching on to the incredibly weak work of Kearns Goodwin, you would have written otherwise.
    Some Solid Examples of a Man Better than his Peers… in the position of US Major General 1861-1865
    1. He bested all of his opponents in terms of casualties inflicted, at minimum loss in return… GBMc inflicted more battle casualties on the Confederate Army than any other Union Leader, relative to losses suffered. Look it up… and he did it all against a healthy and audacious Bobby Lee.
    2. His AOP fought more successfully in 1862, against the strongest ANV of the entire War, than any other commander did afterward, against a greatly weakened Army of Northern Virginia. His Seven Days and Maryland Campaigns were masterpieces of force utilization & maneuver in trying circumstances. The art of leading men in combat requires putting them in position to be successful… he was the only Union General that understood that his men were precious. Dare compare Grant to Mac? Like comparing a butcher to a surgeon. Grant butchered nearly 80,000 men getting to the position in 1864 (against a much smaller enemy force) that Mac accomplished losing less than 10% as many.
    3. He was acknowledged by his prime opponent (RE Lee) as the finest Commander in the Union Army… when asked who was the Union’s ablest commander, the Old Gray Fox had no hesitation… “McClellan, by all odds!” If that’s not enough, remember that Stonewall Jackson never had any success against Mac… while he hammered and trounced and turned and befuddled Pope, Burnside, & Hooker.
    4. As an organizer and inspiration to the Army, he had no peer. He built the AOP single handed. He created the framework for all successes they experienced during the war. His men LOVED him, and they were a far better judge of his character and capabilities than the historical pretender DKG.
    Of course, you’ll certainly delete this, not to upset all the cheers from those who also are uninformed, uneducated, and downright contemptuous of a Man who so ably served his country. As to your smears of Mac as an abusive, shirking, complaining, procrastinating, insubordinate, luxuriator, well, I guess that since dueling is outlawed, and you’re a century after those who knew him personally have become nutrient for cemetery tree roots, you’re fortunate to throw smears when you do.

  • For Truth in History


    From West Point through Mexico, Europe too

    You showed your brilliance, your service was true

    When Civil War broke the peace in Sixty-One

    You pledged to serve ‘til victory’s won

    West Virginia!

    Granny Lee and others in Virginia’s North-west

    Couldn’t push you back, your maneuvers were best

    Carved out a State up there “for the Union”

    West Virginia they called it, you “Young Napoleon’

    Commander of the Army!

    Great Potomac! That Army was truly yours

    You built, taught, formed it, you shaped its Corps

    They loved their boss, their cheers shook the sky

    When on that great noble Charger! You rode by


    You landed with them on Fortress Monroe

    And marched steadily in search of foe

    Yorktown the first to fall though not

    By using siege guns, shell or shot


    From your command, your soldiers he took,

    Well Lincoln’s square beard must have shook,

    From fear he might be termed a crook,

    For stealing bishop, knight, and rook,

    From Mac!

    Did Johnston know? Uncle Joe E?

    What had young Mac, in old Virgin-ny?

    Not a hundred, not ninety, eighty? Maybe…

    Thousands less than needed for planned victory


    Crash and Thunder! Fire and Flames!

    Immortals created, now making their names

    Two Hills, a Stonewall, a Long-street if you dare

    Stand between Mac’s men and Richmond so Fair…


    That didn’t keep Mac from the Chickahominy

    And putting some grape in Old Joe’s fan-ny

    Thus causing the ‘Cause’ to switch to Lee

    Setting up a ‘Seven Days’ jam-bo-ree

    With McClellan!

    Would Lee ever have, again such a chance?

    To work ‘round the flanks, to do a Cannae dance?

    In enemy ground, Mac faced such great threat,

    His base, lines of supply, retreat and … yet…


    Trusted his officers and his Army so dear

    He exhibited calmness; he showed them no fear,

    To Fitz-John Porter on the right wing he gave

    The position and opportunity… Potomac! to save

    The Army!

    Thunder and Crash! Flame and Fire!

    Gaines Mill, Turkey Creek, the outlook was dire!

    In the forests and swamps men swore, fought and died

    If years later you asked? A Miracle they survived!

    Seven Days!

    Mac brought his men back to a Hill called Malvern

    And placed his guns high where the fields they could burn,

    Would Lee be so brash as to attack in the open?

    Over ground the gunners to see targets were a hope-in’?

    Malvern Hill!

    Just as Mac knew from that long ago Crimean day

    If infantry attacked on such ground they would pay

    In blood… and a newfound respect for brass ‘n iron

    Manned by brave gunners who stood at attention while fire-in’

    Rebel Repulse!

    Damage done, but the Potomac Army still exists!

    No way to see it but a fight with two fists!

    The Rebels they fail to cut Mac from his base

    Must find a fool General whose troops they can chase


    No sooner did Mac plan a new line of attack

    But Lincoln took more of his troops North-wards back

    To Pope! Was the thinking of Halleck, Abe agreed

    Too bad for poor Pope, hindquarters on the steed


    Lee sent old Jack on a forced flank march ‘round

    To plant his-self on that Manassas battle-ground

    Needless to say, poor old Pope was lucky not to die

    And the scared fools in Washington sent out the cry

    Bring back McClellan!

    Into Maryland he rode on that big black charger

    Through Frederick! The citizens cheered all the louder

    Towards Boonesboro up in South Mountain they went

    Fighting Longstreet and Hill, some soon heaven-sent


    Now Lee they say, wouldn’t do what seemed brash

    To back up his Army against a river? Balderdash!

    But baiting Mac to attack, on the low Sharpsburg hills

    He trusted in Jackson, Longstreet, and the Hills

    AP Hill!

    The Bloodiest Day, they called it, the wounded and the slain

    In Cornfield, by Burnside’s Bridge, Dunker Church, Bloody Lane

    The final assaults, near to broke the Rebel right wing

    But Hill came up! Harper’s march gave AP fame lasting

    Rebels retreat!

    Mr. Lincoln needed your Victory, Mac, and the Union you save

    To issue his Proclamation, Emancipating the slave

    Of course your “bodyguard” in his eyes seems too slow

    To ever catch Lee’s troops, and strike them a blow


    Repair to Trenton! Await further orders! Never a chance

    Republicans now fear you, as they feared your advance

    Never fast enough, or hard enough, easy to say

    Ensconced in a cozy room far, far away


    The hope of the Union and men of Peace first

    To knit back the country, to lay aside the worst

    To find common ground and once more be brothers

    To show mercy and fairness and end tears of mothers

    Lincoln narrowly Re-elected…

    Soldiers who wanted to vote couldn’t leave

    If officers feared Democrat votes up their sleeve

    So now Mac’s history was mostly written by the “winners”

    To smear Mac was all the rage of those spinners

    To create the myth of Lincoln Republicans being great

    They douse the truth with lies… and healthy doses of hate

    So let’s hear from those in position to know

    Their opinion of McClellan… is it high or low…?


    Now there’s a Real Man, maybe he should say!

    What Bravery meant! What mattered in the fray?

    Of his beloved Commander from that long gone day

    Of McClellan! “…There is nothing too good that I can say… ”

    “There is nothing too good that I can say of General McClellan. He was a man and a thorough soldier.” (MG Winfield S. Hancock, 1885)

    George Gordon Meade!

    War-council at night… “To fight?” he demands!

    Then refusing to budge from those turtle like stands

    With ulcers a-biting and perhaps shaking hands

    While watching Pickett’s veterans advance

    Goggle-eyed Snapping Turtle!

    You surely were a hero too, July Fourth, for a day…

    But then General Lee made his July Fifth get-away

    Soon you heard all those Washington ingrates to bray

    Such critique! From those undeserving even private’s pay!

    You unbundled your thoughts, harsh and bitter, no rhymin’

    For the officers you trust are so few, one was Lyman

    Theodore Lyman!

    Meade’s ADC, his own right hand man,

    At Cold Harbor witnessed Grant’s lack of a plan

    Slaughter! Negligence! Sam? Whittling in the van?

    And the Army Mac built is now gone, to a man…

    Cold Harbor!

    Tears well in the eyes, deep emotions unloosed

    While reporters tell lies to keep officials un-noosed

    But with memory and clarity wise Lyman deduced

    McClellan! “…the Greatest General this War has produced”

    I believe he was, both as a military man and as a manager of a country under military occupation, the greatest general this war has produced.” Theodore Lyman, Meade’s ADC, writing at Cold Harbor, 1864)

    Joe Hooker!

    Lincoln fired you while marching in Vain!

    Knew Command of that Army, the heavy strain…

    When Stanton connived for political gain…

    Better West! And Corps Command again!

    Whiskey Joe!

    Reminiscing, the old I Corps’ Fighter…

    Looking back from Lookout, with pressures lighter…

    Remembers how Mac knit the Army tighter…

    “…Too good a Man…!” McClellan!

    “McClellan was too good a man to command an army in this country.” Joe Hooker December 1863


    Robert E Lee? That old Genius in Gray,

    Whose opponents he studied, those men he deemed prey

    What of Pope? Lee suppressed (with contempt) some would say

    And Burnside? Learnt assaults bore-a heavy price to pay

    Maybe Hooker! But Stonewall took the flanking path-way!

    US Grant? Boxed by the Fox! For Forty oh-so-long-day!


    Old Marse Robert? Did he declare?

    Who faced him toughest, caused most gray hair?

    Who was the best? Now state it fair!

    “Best by All Odds! McClellan!”

    An admirer of the General, who knows the Truth that the mud-slingers attempt to conceal.

  • Bob Goss

    Definitive actions, a must to move your organization forward. Thank you for the article!