The Top-10 Characteristics of Lousy Leaders

If you look at the major news stories in business, politics, diplomacy, whatever, it’s pretty hard to miss that most of the crises we face are crises of leadership.

The Top-10 Characteristics of Lousy Leaders

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I once worked for a man who couldn’t pull the trigger on a project, ever. I would bring him a request with all the supporting documentation. He would ask me to rerun it. When I came back, he would want it rerun again, and again.

It was like an endless doom loop of frustration. I could never get him off the dime. By the time he approved it, the opportunity was lost, and he would blame me for missing it. It was utterly dispiriting.

I’ve worked for a few spectacularly bad bosses in my time. And as a corporate executive I’ve had others equally bad occasionally working for me.

Maybe it’s no surprise, but whether it’s those leaders in my immediate experience or the ones I read about in the news, I see the same failures and mistakes over and over, and each one has a direct impact on getting the results we want.

I’ve arranged them here as the top-ten characteristics of lousy leaders. These are all traits to avoid—or unlearn if you already have trouble with them:

  1. They don’t have enough confidence to lead at their level. The boss I mentioned at the start was like this. He couldn’t decide because he had no faith in his decisions.
  2. They’re arrogant, assuming they always know what’s best. It takes confidence to lead. It also takes humility. Many leaders think they’re confident when they’re really just pigheaded and proud.
  3. They’re disorganized. I’ve worked with some hard-driving, capable leaders who hamstrung themselves by never getting organized. I reported to one leader like this, right up until I was promoted above him. The first thing I did was fire him.
  4. Their words and actions erode trust, even with their supporters. When I fired the boss I just mentioned, this is the primary reason for my decision. I could never count on him as his direct report. I certainly didn’t want him reporting to me.
  5. They over-promise and under-deliver. This one affects more than just politicians. People leading up in an organization often do this this because they are trying to impress those above them, failing to realize that by under-delivering they are shooting themselves in the foot. And people at the top fall into the trap by overusing promises as a way to ensure team loyalty.
  6. They don’t articulate a clear vision. No one wants to follow in the dark. It’s impossible to motivate people who feel in a fog.
  7. They don’t enroll others in their initiatives. No. 7 is related to No. 6. Some leaders just expect people will follow them just because of their position. Wrong. If a leader can’t enroll others, failure looms.
  8. They’re not transparent. Openness encourages honesty. How often do we see the opposite playing out in business and politics? Scandal is only the endgame. But how many bad calls are made before the news finally breaks?
  9. They’re blind to what’s happening in their own organizations. Insulation is fine for the walls of your house, but not for leadership. To lead requires visibility. Without it, you’ll find yourself blindsided and making major blunders.
  10. They don’t hold people accountable—especially themselves. If a leader avoids responsibility and won’t hold their team accountable, they’ll shipwreck the organization. Accountability is essential.

Pick your crisis and you’ll usually find one of these ten traits of lousy leadership in action, often many of them all at once. Bad leadership traits go together.

If you see any of these in your leadership, now’s the time to deal with it. Your dreams and goals are too important to undermine. It’s hard enough to succeed as a leader without being your own worst enemy.

Question: Do you see any of these traits active in your leadership or those around you? What could you do to address them? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

I am currently on sabbatical. Please excuse my absence from the comments section below. My Community Leaders will be responding in my absence. Thanks.
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  • Caleb

    I was a bit afraid to read this because I didn’t want to find something that I see in my own leaderships. Honestly I’ve seen most of these in my own leadership at times.

    I feel like it would be a good idea to turn all those ten character flaws around and reword them into positive characteristics and then make a huge poster with those characteristics written on them and put it right above my desk for a reminder every day of what I need to shooting for!

    Thanks for keeping me honest Michael!

    • Michael Hyatt

      That’s a great idea, Caleb. Thanks!

  • melanieamoore

    Thank you! I may be taking on a new leadership role and want to do it to the best of my abilities. I am studying ALL of your posts!!!
    p.s. Do you think it is always best to choose leadership if given an option? I’m honored to be considered for a leadership role but know the role comes with added responsibilities. I’m carefully weighing the decision and am curious if you would always recommend leadership.

    • Michael Hyatt

      As a concept, leadership is inescapable. We all exercise leadership because we all have influence. It’s just a question of whether it is formally recognized. Based on that, I think it comes down to a matter of calling: do you have the passion and competence to do the job. Hope that helps!

  • James Beeman

    Michael, these are great reminders for myself. I sure appreciate this post and look forward to growing away from these and into more skilled characteristics and habits. JB

  • Mindi

    Number ten, not holding people accountable, rings the bell as the most troublesome to me in a leader, but it is neck and neck with number three, being disorganized. Sometimes I think that the lack of organization is a cover for failing to hold people accountable, after all, they don’t have time to deal with it, because they are so behind on “more important things.”

  • Susan

    Great list. I like Caleb’s suggestion of turning this into a poster with the positive characteristics. I wonder if the leader is unaware of his use of these negative characteristics or if the leader is just determined to not change even as the business is failing.

  • Patricia West

    Dig deeper than symptoms. To remedy, get to the cause — operating on dysfunctional paradigms. For example, pls see “How Bad People Become Leaders.” All best

  • Suzanne Simpson

    Michael, I believe you are a conscientious man to details, there is a typo on point #1, 2nd line, ” in his is decisions.” There is an extra ‘is’. You are welcome to delete this comment.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Suzanne. Fixed!

  • Jack D

    An painful observation – had a boss that had quite a few symptoms. The pride and self-unawareness caused him to label as divisive anyone who tried to graciously clarify and take initiative. A number of us left.
    The point of learning: does my leadership allow my team of trusted coworkers to speak into my life in ways that clarify my blind spots while my humility allows for the strengths of others to fill in my gaps – and be honored and respected for that.

  • Brett

    Disorganization! I’m overly complex, but I have a lot of irons in the fire. My Achilles is the email that is actionable, but deferrable…. I don’t always immediately defer and it cascades down my inbox and forgotte (on occasion – I’m working on it). But not acting on those can erode confidence.
    You’d think after reading your stuff for the last 4 or 5 years I’d have this one licked! :-) Not for lack of trying,

    • Michael Hyatt

      Well, at least you know what the issue is! ;-)

  • Ted Alvia

    Great post Michael and welcome back. As a new leader/entrepreneur I can see some of these things within me.
    It would be encouraging to hear that you are human and fall short from time to time.
    For me it’s all to easy to point out shortcomings and mid-steps in myself without the benefit of a gracious and correcting opportunities. What have you done and turned around 180 degrees in you career as a leader?

    • Michael Hyatt

      I fall short a lot, believe me. Many of these are well-documented elsewhere in my blog. Probably my biggest turn-around is probably with #2. I’m not sure it’s 180° but I’m getting there. When I was in my 20s, I got promoted very fast. Unfortunately, my head swelled, and I became arrogant. Thankfully, it was a self-correcting problem. All I needed was a a few failures to humble me. Thanks!

      • Ted Alvia

        Thank you Michael for sharing and engaging with your community. I think you once spoke about how appropriate transparency and vulnerability increases the respect and credibility of a leader. I can say definitively that is 1000% correct in this thread!
        Thank you! You’ve encouraged me more than you could know.

  • Russ

    As a career Naval Officer and career law enforcement officer, I’ve seen most of the characteristics, and have even been guilty of some of them myself. We all go out and do the best we can based on the knowledge we have at the moment, heavily influenced by the uncontrollable and unknown events happening around us. I’ve often wished I could go back and relive the past with the knowledge I now have, but there is always the unknown and our shortcomings in dealing with it.

  • Michael Macaque

    To lead others in the unknown requires vision . Point no. 9 is interesting as we can find 2 kinds of blindness here , one which is personal , pertaining to their own weaknesses such as arrogance and a mix of the other points you developed , and then organizational blindness. Leadership is not a position or designation that you receive from someone else , it’s intentional , you’ve got to step up. As Seth godin mentioned ” it’s about initiative to start and not wait ” . Thanks for adding value every day Michael.

  • John R. Meese

    These traits totally ring true for many of those around me. I’m sure I still have plenty of growing to do, but I think I’ve managed to avoid most of these. Regardless, I find your story of being promoted over the ineffective leader encouraging, because it reminds me of the importance of sticking it out for the long haul, knowing the cream will rise to the top.

  • Ron Kelleher

    Welcome home! Good to have you back!

    I agree wholeheartedly with your very last point: in a crisis many traits of poor leadership seem to go together! In fact, seeing one of these traits of a poor leader is my tip off to watch out for the others!

  • John Waco

    I believe this has its own # however it ties closely with 7. There’s will be others in leadership, that just expect others to follow them due to a strong leader at the top. Unfortunately most people will follow this kind of leader because folks struggle separating the vision, purpose or courage from leadership. Each leader must create their own leadership.

  • Maci

    I have learned that the best way to address a leader, especially a church leader who has succumbed to #2, is to pray, act in wisdom, and trust God to handle every detail of your vindication. You have to stay focused and think. Arrogant leaders are dangerous, especially if there is a sense of entitlement along with a lust for power and money.

  • bob obam

    Does 0bama have this list?

  • Jeff Goins

    Man. I sure do struggle with #1 a whole lot. How do you have more faith in your decisions?

  • Kathleen Thompson

    Here’s #11 – they care only for themselves and see the people on their team only as a means or impediment to their personal success.

  • Todd K Marsha

    At one time or another, I’ve seen most of them in my own leadership style. I plan to be a leader again soon and I vow, once and for all, not to repeat the mistakes of my past.

  • Ellen Bard

    Great post – and sad to say I’ve seen most of those. The most challenging boss I had to work with was incredibly political – amazing at managing upwards, dreadful at managing downwards…and I spent a lot of time protecting my teams from the impact of this.

    But it was a great lesson – I try hard to surround myself with people who will tell me the truth, and to be as accountable as possible up and down – and make sure that I’m as authentic as possible in all directions.

  • Brian Mininger

    Getting organized is always a challenge for me. I have too many ideas and sometimes that creates clutter in my own mind. Thanks for the encouragement Michael.

  • Charles Hooper Jr

    This is a good grid to evaluate my leadership and make adjustments. I thought about leaders who have these undesirable traits. If a leader is honest and authentic about their leadership it makes it much easier to overlook those qualities and continue to work well together.

  • Tim

    When promoted over a bad supervisor you previously reported to, the first thing you did was fire the guy? That breaks my heart. I would hope that the first thing I’d do would be to try to help the person be a better supervisor. Firing someone should be the last resort.

    • Jake

      Point #4 points out the primary reason for termination was a trust issue. We don’t know the complete situation, but it is likely that Michael was not that only one that noticed this man could not be trusted. Once a reputation like this is known around an organization, it is nearly impossible for that person to completely regain the trust that was lost. It is quite possible that Michael was serving this man and the organization well by letting him move on to a new company. This man could make a new start at a new company by keeping his promises and practicing integrity. He may be thriving somewhere else now.
      Or, this could have been a mistake similar to the ones you and I make every day.
      The important thing is that Michael did not say the ‘first thing you should do when you are promoted above a lousy leader is fire him/her’. Every situation is different, and we don’t know everything that went on in this one.

      • Michael Hyatt

        Thanks, Jake. You are exactly right. He had lost the credibility of everyone in the company, including the CEO of the company. We all needed a fresh start, including him. Frankly, I think he needed the jolt to change. HR had worked with him for years and he just wouldn’t—or couldn’t—change. Regardless, it was the right decision, and I don’t have any regrets.

        (By the way, I am still friends with the majority of people I have ever fired. I set that as an intention early on and asked, “How can I let this person go in a way that preserves the relationship intact.)

        You are also right that every situation is different. In 99% of the cases, working with the person through a process of rehabilitation or development is the right decision. Thanks again.

  • Justin Chapman

    Not enrolling others in my initiatives is the leadership challenge I face… which really comes down to pride and thinking your ideas are best.

  • Evo Bulgarevo

    They lack testicular fortitude when it comes to making their decisions public before success is in sight.

    I’ve worked with managers and directors whose actions practically tell employees “If it fails, it’s your fault. If it succeeds, I’ll take the glory.”

  • Micki

    I have had many bosses who have shown these traits over the years. I left one job largely because of a boss who continuously eroded my trust. I now work for a completely transparent company, and it is a very good feeling!

  • Adam Roberts

    Micro-managing should be on that list. I had two bosses with that problem. It was horrible and kept them from growing as leaders.

    • Nathan Deunk

      As a Naval Officer, I agree. We hear “Message to Garcia” trotted out quite frequently, but the junior officer didn’t have the General riding around behind him only speaking up to criticize, which is how things often are in today’s military leadership: 100% responsibility, 0% authority.

      We are 95% tracker/bureaucrat and only 5% leader, even at the Flag Officer stage.

  • dougpatten

    Michael, you were clear to point out that these are characteristics we might see in others, but you were also very clear to point out they are characteristics we should avoid ourselves. Just scrolling through the comments, it seems it is easier to apply this “test” to others– to our leaders– than it is to apply it to ourselves. Personally, i think i am capable of displaying any of these behaviors on any given day. Rather than a “yes” or a “no” i find it helpful to apply a scale: Always-Often-Sometimes-Never. I also believe that building trust with those I work with gives me the benefit of using their feedback to help me uncover my blindspots, and to establish accountability for correcting my own bad behaviors. Once again, a concise and wise lesson. Thank you!

  • nlpmum

    I’d also add – a good leader listens to understand, not to respond, a good leader is kind and takes part rather than always just dictating what others should do (balance of delegation here, but leaders who sometimes appear on the shop floor will garner more respect than those who never do – get rid of the office and join the workforce!).

  • Matt LeMaster

    Thank you Michael…this is a great list. I have been “making my bones” as a front line supervisor for 10 years. I can tell you, with out a doubt, that this list exists on so many levels.
    Bottom line, bad leadership is down right cancerous to an organization and is so prevalent in my experiences. Even worse yet…IT’S TOLERATED!!! I often enlist the 80/20 rule…80% of leadership is bad. 20% being good (average). With an even lower percentage of leaders being exceptional. I am learning from the 80%, how to become a great leader.
    If anyone is wandering where you fit on the 80/20 scale…your most likely in the 80 percentile. Sorry for the pessimism. It is directly correlated to bad leadership. But hey…can’t know the good without knowing the bad and vice versa.
    Cheers to all of the BS sifters out there!

  • John Bergquist

    Michael, Have you posted these as a”the good leader has these”. I am printing this out and placing next to my desk as a reminder and temperature of how I am leading my team, family and ministry. So good.

    • Michael Hyatt

      No I haven’t, John, but that is a great idea.

      • John Bergquist

        I think I will write one up and post. I need it next to my desk.

  • Tom Henricksen

    Being a leader for a few years I have made many of these mistakes myself. Thanks for sharing these Michael. I would say most new leaders don’t have enough confidence to lead at their level. I guess we all need to grow into our leadership role.