Why are there so many bad leaders?

Why are there so many bad leaders


I’m continuously astounded by the number of stories I hear about poor leadership. Seemingly everywhere people are complaining about their bad bosses and how much they dislike their jobs.

It makes sense that the loudest speakers are probably those that feel the most aggrieved by their boss, whilst you may not hear a peep out of those people who feel they have a pretty good leader.

However, I’ve worked in enough places in leadership and non-leadership positions that tell me that there is no smoke without fire.

There seem to be an alarming amount of people who dislike their jobs and people are often said to leave their manager, not their company.

So why are there so many bad leaders? How can there be so many people in leadership positions that aren’t doing a good job?

Why are there so many bad leaders?

A bad leader can have a great team and work will still get done

A great team can make up for the shortcomings of a leader, by simply self-managing. If you happen to have a team full of high performers without a capable manager, the team will often be able to get the work done anyway. The managers themselves often aren’t required to do a lot of the grunt work, so when they aren’t performing, it’s hard to see that just based on the amount of work being done.

This model isn’t sustainable because being motivated while you have a poor manager is difficult, and eventually, high performers are going to be sick of propping up the lame duck at the top.

What good leaders do is less tangible

Good leaders will focus on building the capabilities of their team. They will understand the team member’s career aspirations, coach, mentor and try their best to provide them with opportunities that match their goals.

The problem is that often if you skimp on these “softer” aspects of leadership, it’s hard to notice. How can you really tell when someone isn’t mentoring or coaching their team? How can an external observer see that someone is unmotivated because their manager has not taken any of their goals into account in allocating work?

Leaders at the top of the organisation have limited visibility of what lies beneath

Often the leadership at the highest levels of the organisation aren’t really aware of what is happening below them. I’ve seen a number of organisations with competent executive leadership, with a layer of ineffectual middle management sitting below them.

Many executives would be unhappy if they knew their leadership layer beneath them were treating their employees badly, or that the teams were unmotivated and disengaged. The only problem is, they seldom get to see that view of their organisation – the view that is presented to them is one that is filtered by the layer of middle management beneath them.

Busy senior leaders don’t have the capacity to dig deeper and they often see issues through the lens of engagement survey results rather than personal contact with people who are unhappy. Often this is delivered with a directional component, such as “The engagement level is 70%, up 4% from last quarter”. This information can be useful, but what is often ignored is that this means that a whopping 30% of people don’t actually want to be there.

There are no qualifications that make you a leader

You can’t go and get a “leadership” degree and you can’t sit an exam to prove that you’re any good at it either. This differs from many professions because you can’t go and build a bridge without being an Engineer and you can’t perform heart surgery unless you have some medical training. But sure, go ahead and be a manager, that’s fine.

What about MBAs? Well, they teach some aspects of leadership but ultimately the MBA is a qualification for managing a business, not being a good leader.

I’ve often also seen leaders appointed because they are the best at the technical aspects of their job, but this actually says nothing about their capabilities as a people manager. In fact, some of the worst leaders I’ve met have been technically very strong, but this is no reason to promote them to management.

How do you increase the accountability of leadership to address these issues?

Something needs to change if we’re going to put a stop to all these tales of bad leadership. Even though it is well researched that employee engagement improves productivity (and more), often this takes second place to the financial metrics that are used within organisations.

Too often it is assumed that leaders are doing the right thing by their teams. 360 feedback was a mechanism that has become popular, but its effectiveness suffers from the potential for lower-ranked employees to be fearful of providing honest feedback.

We should record metrics for the leadership intangibles

I believe we need to start recording metrics as indicators for the correct application of leadership behaviours. Here are some examples:

  • How many times during the year that a leader has met with their direct reports to have career or performance-based conversations
  • Knowledge of the goals and aspirations of a leader’s direct reports
  • How many times the leader has solicited feedback from direct reports and shown proof of attempting to action improvement points
  • The awareness levels of a manager’s team as to relevant events that affect the team i.e. a proxy for openness and transparency of communication

Sure, recording all of these things might be difficult and some may be subject to error, but we need to stop assuming that leaders are doing the right thing by their teams – because often they simply aren’t.

I’ve worked in several companies with “balanced” scorecards, and you know what? The financial metrics seem to have far greater weighting than any of the people aspects, even though that is never actually stated. I’ve worked with managers who don’t even meet with their staff once over the course of an entire year to discuss performance, career or aspirations.

Personally, in roles when I didn’t have time to meet with direct reports during the day, I’d schedule breakfast catchups instead. It’s all doable, you just need to put in the effort.

You might feel that this post is arrogant and critical. Am I the best leader in the world? No. But it’s important to at least consider how you are affecting your team. It seems like hard work, and yes it is. But that hard work will pay off if you actually understand how improving your team’s engagement levels can help.

The real problem is that many leaders don’t understand how treating their team well and trying to help them develop actually makes a difference. If they aren’t willing to put in the time to do these things, they shouldn’t be in management positions. Let’s increase the accountability by trying to measure these aspects so that their lack of performance comes to light.

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