These are all the ways you can be a terrible leader

Below is a note I recently received from an executive coaching client that, although makes me sad, carries great wisdom. This high performing executive leader was leaving an organization she loved and had relocated for with mixed feelings. As is often the case, she was leaving because of her boss.

— — —

Good morning Mary Lee,

I have one more week reporting to this woman that has made the last 14 months of my life incredibly difficult. The exit process has been even more difficult.

In 20 years in the workplace I have never experienced anything like this from someone at this woman’s level.

Every leader has opportunity, but I do not believe there are many who behave as badly as what I have witnessed over the past year.

I am also amazed how her leaders look away, an ostrich to this woman’s behavior. I am not personalizing this (thank you Mary Lee), I understand it is simply inconvenient to disrupt the status quo or face the difficult conversations or the admit that perhaps it was a mistake to promote her to her current role. Her leaders are not stupid or unaware, despite the harm to our organization.

So, I am writing this to you, because I will not talk with my team, or my peers about this (that would make me a terrible leader).

As catharsis, the things I wish I could say but will not.

You are a terrible leader.

Not when you “hold people accountable”.

Not when you are a “tough critic”.

Not when you have “high standards”. 

Not when you want results. 

Not when you want to control costs.

And not when you want to make changes in organizational structure.

You are a terrible leader when you don’t realize the impact of your behavior and your words.

You are a terrible leader when you are primarily concerned with how you appear to your leaders.

You are a terrible leader when you don’t listen.

You are a terrible leader when you believe you have all the answers.

You are a terrible leader when you favor your friends and those you perceive as loyal to you.

You are a terrible leader when you formulate opinions about employees based upon gossip.

You are a terrible leader when you search for situations to support your subjective opinions.

You are a terrible leader when you do not seek feedback from your team.

You are a terrible leader when you are dishonest.

You are a terrible leader when you make snarky comments about those you dislike.

You are a terrible leader when you don’t communicate clearly.

You are a terrible leader when you cause entire teams to be fearful of making any mistake.

You are a terrible leader when you lack the ability to trust.

You are a terrible leader when you waste others’ time scrambling for meaningless last-minute requests.

You are a terrible leader when you have no respect for your subordinates’ time, calendar, or other obligations when you need something.

You are a terrible leader when you trivialize and dismiss employee engagement, “they are never happy”, “they just want to complain”.

You are a terrible leader when you are inequitable with opportunity, resources and support.

You are a terrible leader when you withhold opportunity, resources and support as consequences for displeasing you.

You are a terrible leader when you make decisions about employees based upon what HR can “prove.”

You are a terrible leader when you scramble to cover organizational mistakes, rather than accepting and correcting.

You are a terrible leader.  But you already know that.

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I’m happy she is going to a role she’s excited about. Her culture tolerated a bad leader. Her peers did not demand more from this leader. They all felt they could not be heard because they’d be perceived as bad leaders themselves. This is cultural dysfunction. It costs people fulfillment which they’ll only put up with for so long. And it costs organizations millions in recruitment and on-boarding.

Do you run a ‘safe’ work environment void of blame and open to candor? Do you seek and act on 360 feedback? Or do you look the other way because a leader can ‘get it done’ at any cost. If it’s the latter you’re foolish. Think of what you’d gain in productivity if you had both a servant and results oriented leader. And if you think you can’t have both you’re choosing to make excuses that are apathetic and in denial. Don’t be a terrible leader who tolerates terrible leadership.

Revisit the company values. Develop departmental values. And recruit for talent that includes the values. It’s time that will payoff far more than the time investment up front. Don’t lose top talent because you’re lazy or you fear confrontation. Your culture and company depend on it.

Corporate politics are difficult to maneuver. Here is a free tool to help you navigate your career along the way: 31 Success Practices for Leaders in the High Stakes Corporate World.