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?