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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  • http://twitter.com/quirkycity Heather C Button

    I am guilty of #1. But I find the real difficulty in balancing acting on something versus knowing when someone is trying to get me to act on something because they can’t / won’t do it themselves. I find sometimes the easy way out (in my job in the construction industry) ends up being go to person. Sometimes they legitimately need a decision, and sometimes, they didn’t need to both asking. It’s a learning experience just knowing which are the right topics to act on something quickly.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      I’ve done this too.   I realize that when I’m not there, folks handle most issues themselves and handle them well.  

      Of course, inaccessibility is not always the best solution.   When they do ask questions that could have been answered themselves, I’ve learned to respond to their question with the question they should have asked themselves.  

      Most competent team members catch on and learn that they can ask the same question before coming to me … and eventually they do.

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

    It’s great that we can learn from those who’ve come before us. Especially when it reveals our own flaws. I find myself falling into the trap of complaining about a lack of resources/opportunities. This is a great reminder to stop doing that. 

  • G. Grace Small

    Very good post!

  • Shules Hersh

    Number 1 is a killer for me. I am constantly tweaking and perfecting my product or team until, by the time I am satisfied we are ready for launch, the momentum has been lost. This could be my Achilles heel. 
    I say “could be.” 2013 has already been a major turnaround and a year of massive action. The solution I found to the perpetual perfecting problem is embarrassingly simple. Stop waiting. Start rolling. —It is not trite. It is effective. Some things are better tweaked on the fly anyway. 

    My new rule of thumb: If it’s gone through three improved iterations since inception, launch it or lose it and move on.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Love that rule of thumb!  It’s obviously a product of experience.

  • http://www.jackiebledsoe.com/ jbledsoejr

    Wow, you have challenged me with this post.  #1 & #2 have been problems for me (“once I have, or know this, I can move forward…if I had this, then I wouldn’t be here”).

    I am working on these flaws, but sometimes reminders and looks in the mirror help to not get complacent or fall back.  Thanks Michael for another great post!

    • Jim Martin

      I once said to a person regarding a particular challenge “I just not ready yet.”  He then asked “What would it look like to be ready?”  I had no answer.  Yes, I relate to #1

  • Russ

    Great post, THANKS! Numbers 1 and two were like a mirror in my face. I’m a pastor of a church of roughly 150 in attendance and I procrastinate using those two excuses often. Not anymore.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      What a courageous response, Russ!  You and the people you lead will be better for it!

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  • Isokarifrancis

    This is a timely reminder for action to over-accommodating leaders.  Good work.  Insightful.

  • Russel Heron

    Launch a decisive attack.

    Figure out how to use the
    resources at hand.

    Take responsibility.

    Live frugally.

    Honour those in leadership over

  • Matt

    great list

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  • Tomich1040

    Trust is the #1 in any relationship;   professional & personal. – I believe once trust is seen  then so much can be built on that and reinforces the strength of any team !!  

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      True, that trust is a priority.  It’s also a privilege.  It takes time to earn it, but no time to lose it.

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  • http://twitter.com/ScribeLifeGames Corey and Christina

    I loved that book, but have yet to see the movie. One question I have is regarding number 5. It is easy to talk about subordination, but most leaders are independent thinkers and cannot blindly follow orders. Though in the book as in real life, McClellan was toxic, but primarily because he was indirect. If he genuinely didn’t believe in the course of action Lincoln was taking, he was right not to follow it. He may have followed through in the wrong ways, but a real leader will not take a path he doesn’t believe in as McClellan did not.

     It’s easy to know today that Lincoln was in the right, but it may not have been at the time. This is usually true of all historical events – hindsight is 20/20. 

    When do you feel it’s appropriate to be subordinate and when is it appropriate to stand for the path you believe is right?

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    If I’m being honest there have been times when I was guilt of some of these flaws. This is a great guide that leaders should use, will have to read the book. 

    • Jim Martin

      You are right Kimanzi, this is a great guide.  I also need to read this book.  I have heard so many good things about Goodwin’s book.

  • Chery Schmidt

    Great Post Michael. You have done a Great job with your list. #1 is definitely something I have been trying to improve on, although I am sure I have been guilty of all of them at some point. Thanks for sharing Chery :)

    • Jim Martin

      Chery as soon as I read #1, I immediately thought of a situation in my own life that mirrors this.  Like you I have been working on this.

  • Melanie

    As a voluntary leader of a group of volunteers in women’s ministry, my leadership flaw may be the opposite of #1 in that I have a big vision, cast it and even accomplish tasks toward the vision. Then hours later…usually just before I fall asleep…I lie upon my pillow scared and thinking, “What did I just do?” 

  • http://sevensentences.com/ Geoff Talbot

    This is a fascinating post, thanks for sharing Michael,

    I wonder what leadership skills McClellan possessed to get him to such a high position in the first place. Was he fast talker, a good networker, a good salesman?He must have had something other than his character flaws? I guess I am asking could he have been a good leader?

    I think that being prideful is worse than being flawed, because pride stops us acknowledging our humanity and seeing our weaknesses for what they are?

    What were Lincolns flaws and how did he deal with them?

    Geoff Talbot
    Blogging & Commenting in only Seven Sentences

  • Patsheveland

    Awesome post Michael!  I think we have all seen these traits in leaders at one time or another and have to admit that there have been times when I have fallen into some of these behaviors…a bit humbling to see oneself in your descriptions to say the least…

  • Leil Lowndes

    Michael, I appreciate your explorations, insight and wisdom. I have subscribed to a number of newsletters and unsubscribed after a few issues. Yours is one I have and intend to stay with. Keep up the fine work. (I know you will–you couldn’t do otherwise.)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for your words, Leil.

  • http://www.NateAnglin.com/ Nate Anglin

    I’ll play the devils advocate and say are we leaders if we inherit any of these traits? Its the opposite of these that defines a true leader and if one isn’t present we become a follower. 

  • Theedgeofthewedge

    A superb article, Michael. You highlight almost obvious “bad” leadership traits I have known and fall into a times. Thank you for this article and all the others that really contribute to my awareness. Paul

  • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

    Complaining about a lack of resources seems huge in my area of work. Churches and church leaders are always discouraged because they don’t have the facility they need or the funds to maintain the facility they have. They also complain about the lack of qualified church leaders and volunteers. 

    Nevertheless as I look back in church history it seems that those who had the least often accomplished the most! There is something freeing when we stop worrying about what we don’t have and start focusing on what we do have and how we can utilize that more effectively.

    Thanks for the warning and great reminder Michael.

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  • http://www.spencermcdonald.net/ Spencer McDonald

    An excellent reminder to be and engaged, positive leader. 

    I forward this onto my team. At times I see, hear, and feel these weaknesses popping through in morning meetings or as thing get tough. 

    Great lessons we can take and apply. 

  • Ricardowilliams

    I see leadership as managing a balloon with many holes. So many of us try to lead without communicating with those we are leading so we miss the solutions to the problems. To make matters worse we take action against those who serve us and we create more holes in the balloon. As a leader I put my focus on the areas that are affecting productivity of those who are serving me.
    Now with this analogy, Could President Lincoln have been the problem?

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  • http://www.alansalls.com/ Alan Salls

    What a great post.  The five points really make you think.  For me, it’s thinking about the past, where I was a leader in a couple of former positions in private industry, although that’s not the case anymore.  I can surely see myself failing on at least 2, maybe 3 of those 5 points.  And in looking back, I can now see why and how I failed.  I seriously doubt if anyone could say they do a perfect job in five of the five. There is something to be learned here for everyone.  Thanks, Michael!

  • Fabico66

    I would add


    Giving an instruction and expecting it will happen and
    not confirming it actually did And even worst telling everybody else it is
    happening without  actually checking the

  • http://twitter.com/cathywrites4U Cathywrites

    Ouch.  I found some of of myself in McClellan.  I clipped this article to Evernote and I am going to use it to launch an interior Civil War against those elements.  Thanks.

    • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

      We all engage in an interior Civil War.  An interior coup de` dat` may be the best approach. Just saying. :-D 

  • Kristen

    This was a great post Michael, thank you.  Profound and simple enough I read it out loud to my older kids and we discussed it together :)

  • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

    I’m currently writing a post that deep dives into problem number one on this list.  It is my personal opinion that a lack of vision, courage, and self awareness contributes to this problem, as clearly General McClellan had.  His vision was to enjoy his position as the commander in chief and not really to lead his army to victory.

  • Alan E Meyers

    Great post Michael,
    My thought is that Lincoln showed a lack of leadership in waiting so long to replace McClellan and what about expect what you inspect.

    Just a thought,
    Alan Meyers

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      That’s a valid point.

  • Smarkham8888

    Michael, great post and perfect timing as we get ready to watch the Super Bowl. I see times in my daily life where I move in and out of all five of your listed leadership dysfunctions. “The team we are part of today is the one we will win with, not “the super team of tomorrow.” Removing my “I know better than the boss” pride is something that God and I have to discuss almost everyday. Being present and humbly walking “among his troops” is the number one King David leadership lesson I have to relearn again and again. Thanks, Steve

  • http://PrayersToGod.org/ Hope4Everyone

    Lincoln was a great movie. You wonder how much bad blood must have to run through the veins of our current elected officials for them to not want to work together. The Team of Rivals book and the 5 flaws you jotted down are still 100% relevant today. History does repeat itself.

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  • http://twitter.com/joshuamtaylor Joshua Taylor

    Wow, incredible post. Definitely hit home. Thank you for this — I’ll definitely keep this with me.

  • http://www.thadthoughts.com/ Thad Puckett

    I need to read the book you mentioned here.  McClellan sounds all too much like many of the political class of our day (regardless of party).

    Lincoln, on the other hand, was magnanimous as well as patient.  He gave McClellan more than enough opportunity to prove himself.

    As you said, there are never enough resources.  You simply push through with what you have available to you.

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

    This is a fantastic post! During my career I’ve reported directly to 8 different CEOs – witnessing first hand each of the traits you’ve listed. The worst of these leaders completely rejected any sense of accountability to the board, employees or customers – he obviously didn’t last long. The most common flaw I’ve noticed is the first one you listed – inaction is DEFINITELY an action.

  • Margaret Feinberg

    Micahel, thanks for challenging me with post today! 

  • Jae Riley

    Great post.

  • http://leadright.wordpress.com/ Brent Dumler

    Wow, all of these unfortunately occur in the Church too.  I mostly appreciated your statement, “The best safeguard is self-awareness.”  This is very true, but for many pastors is almost impossible without a strong accountability system.

  • http://www.leavingconformitycoaching.com/ Randy Crane

    #1 and #2 have been a struggle for me, though less so now. I still have the inclination to both, and they are my default, but I am learning to intentionally choose to take action with the resources I have. It really is true that if you’re following the path you were designed for, the additional resources come as definite action is taken with what you have.

  • http://www.caminomyway.com/ Randall St Germain

    Another excellent post. I’m always trying to improve not only my writing, but the way I’m able to lead for future endeavors. I know I have strengths but also, I’m aware of my weaknesses. This post makes me stop and think about an important self reflection. Thanks again, Michael.

  • http://www.liveyourwhy.net/ Terry Hadaway

    Thanks, Michael. I’ve worked in two organizations where I had the privilege(?) of working for weak leaders. Those opportunities made me far more aware of my own leadership tendencies and flaws. It would be a tragedy to work for weak leaders and then become one of them.

    I have complained about a lack of resources (especially in ministry positions) and have shared my opinions freely which, in an autocratic organization, were inaccurately defined as insubordination. I concluded that leaders who demand allegiance often do so because they aren’t competent enough to earn it.

  • http://www.borntwolead.com/ TJ Trent


    Like Lincoln I have a lot of patience with my Junior leaders and Soldiers.  Perhaps too much patience in some instances.  I also (sometimes) find myself complaining about resources when I should be out fighting for them.

    On another note I found your number one point very interesting.  It reminded me of Stephen Ambrose’s one volume on IKE.  Many felt Eisenhower failed to take definitive action during early on during the civil rights crisis of his time.  Thoughts?

  • http://twitter.com/EFTFreedom Ben Ross

    Interesting because those exact same things can be used in life in general. Take definate action, take responsibility, don’t complain etc… and not just in leadership.

    Thankyou for the article.

  • David Beth-El

    Coming from Australia, I don’t know a lot about Lincoln but it was a fascinating read; thank you.
    I was convicted by #5. I sometimes struggle working for someone 23 years my junior. Having the advantage of experience can sometimes be a disadvantage when it comes to submitting to authority. As pride enters in, servanthood goes out the door.

  • Eldon Carvey

    McClellan epitomized at least one other fatal leadership flaw, namely a demonstrable ambivalence concerning the very reasons for going to war in the first place. This speaks to
    the central importance of every leader possessing genuine passion for the mission of their organization, as well as the capacity & willingness to share this passion with their associates. 

    • Jim Martin

      Good observation Eldon.  You make a good point.  If a leader is not passionate about the mission of an organization,  it really does impact his/her associates.