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A Field Guide to Bad Leaders

"Poor leadership in good times can be hidden. But poor leadership in bad times is a recipe for disaster." These prescient words (and warnings) are from Jack Zenger and Joesph Folkman, the CEO and President of a Zenger/Folkman, leadership development consultancy.

Poor leadership appears to be an epidemic.  

But every epidemic comes with a long line of saviors. Wizened professionals with advice, antidotes, and cures.  Much like the cosmetic aisle at your local pharmacy, they sell formulas and hope. And somehow, people keep on coming back for a better product.

So why do we continue to mass produce bad leaders?

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (June 2009), Zenger and Folkman have some answers. They share the results of their research into the fatal flaws that derail leaders.  They collected feedback data on more than 450 Fortune 500 executives and compared the common characteristics of the 31 that were fired over the following three years.  They also analyzed 360 degree-feedback data from more than 11,000 leaders and identified the 10% who were considered the least effective.

Here are their 10 most common leadership shortcomings:

Don't learn from mistakes.  They don't make more mistakes than their peers but they fail to use setbacks as opportunities for improvement.  Their MO? Hiding errors and brooding or blaming others instead.

Resist new ideas.  They reject new suggestions from peers and subordinates.  Good ideas are not implemented or are put on a slow track and the organization gets stuck.

Accept their own mediocre performance.  They overstate the difficulty of reaching targets so they will look good when they achieve them.

Fail to develop others.  They focus on themselves to the exclusion of developing staff --  causing individuals and teams to disengage. 

Lack interpersonal skills.  They make sins of commission (they are abrasive and bullying) and omission (they're aloof, unavailable, and reluctant to praise).

Have poor judgement.  They made decisions that colleagues and subordinates consider to be not in the best interest of the organization.

Don't walk the talk.  They set standards of behavior and expectations of performance and then violate them.

Lack clear vision and direction.  They believe their only job is to execute.  Like a hiker who sticks close to the trail, they're fine until they come to a fork.

Don't collaborate.  They avoid peers, act independently, and view other leaders as competitors.  As a result, they are alienating the very people whose insights and support they need.

Lack energy and enthusiasm.  They see new initiatives as a burden, rarely volunteer, and fear being overwhelmed.

These sound like obvious flaws that any leader would try to fix, right? No. Zenger and Folkman discovered that the ineffective leaders they studied, were often unaware that they exhibited these behaviors.  In fact, the leaders who were rated most negatively rated themselves most positively.

You could stick all the above flaws on the office bulletin board and they wouldn't recognize themselves.

So please, stick this blog entry on the office bulletin board.  The message might not resonate with the person at the top, but it will be a soothing balm to the rest of the organization.  



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Reader Comments (2)

This is such a great reminder, Marty. Because I work with higher awareness and lead master mind groups every single day to keep all this awareness in the forefront of my mind, it becomes almost baffling to me why leaders would rather be right than have their organizations and employees grow and learn and produce new ideas and more productivity for their organizations. Alas, it seems on blogs like ours we end up preaching to the choir. I'm working now on giving more resources and ideas to the choir as I hold out hope that the leaders will come around and take a look in the mirror when things go badly, as Jim Collins suggests Level 5 leaders do.

Thanks for the inspiration (as always)!

August 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJodee Bock

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