Terrible Leaders Do These 4 Things Really, Really Well

Jeff Havens
Contributing Writer
The Jeff Havens Company

Leadership is an art. And, as with any art form, some people are better at it than others. In painting, for example, some people create breathtaking masterpieces, scenes of sweeping beauty and poignant emotion capable of evoking rapture in the viewer. Others paint reasonably well, good enough to admire but not quite deserving of the museum. Still others paint poorly, but their dedication to the craft and determination to practice make it easy to believe that time will make them respectable artists.

And then there’s people who paint like I do, flinging colors at a canvas with absolutely no idea how to make anything worth looking at. I couldn’t make a paint-by-numbers landscape look interesting. My stick figures leave something to be desired. If Matisse or Renoir held my hand and forcibly moved it where they wanted it to go, the outcome would be so awful that they’d start to question their own talent. The only thing I have ever successfully painted is a wall, provided you don’t expect me to do the edges. When it comes to painting, I have the artistic ability of a pickle.

Similarly, some people are natural leaders. Others have learned to become admirable. Others are in the process of becoming well-thought-of. And still others are so bad at it that you almost think they have to be doing it intentionally.

Here are four things those people do. Don’t do them, unless you’re excited about the prospect of your employees actively plotting an insurrection.

FOCUS ENTIRELY ON SHORT-TERM GOALS

This is easy to do since short-term goals are much easier to focus on than long-term ones. It’s also a terrible strategy. For example, I have to bathe my dog today, and I don’t want to because it’s messy and he’ll fling soapy water everywhere. It doesn’t fit into my short-term goal of enjoying myself. But if I act on that impulse for long enough, I’ll end up with a house that smells the way nature intended things to smell, which is precisely why people decided to become civilized. In exactly the same way, your shareholders don’t always care about the long-term. They want their annual returns or their quarterly dividends, and often that’s as far as they’re thinking. But if you do everything to gratify that insatiable desire on their part, you’ll ultimately make decisions that negatively impact your business.

FLAUNT YOUR AUTHORITY

There are a billion ways to do this, and all of them reek of insecurity. Some people like to yell a lot, as though saying things loudly enough will somehow make their ideas better. Others prefer the flashy car or IM RICH vanity plate, which only makes everyone wonder about your physical endowments. Larry Ellison likes to surround himself with an entourage of bodyguards whose sole purpose is to prevent untermeschen from having a chance to talk to him, which allows him to persist in the delusion that people are excited to do so. In almost every case, these people have confused being successful in business with being a successful leader. You can do all of these things if you want, and people will still work for you if you pay them well enough. But they’ll also be far more likely to jump ship when a better offer comes along, or sell your company secrets if they think they can get away with it.

THINK YOU KNOW EVERYTHING

Because you don’t. Socrates knew that he didn’t know everything, and he obviously didn’t know hemlock was poisonous or he wouldn’t have drunk it. Did you know large stars have shorter lifespans than smaller ones? Did you know Kansas used to be a rabidly liberal state? Did you know German was almost made the national language of the United States? All those things are true, and I’ll bet you didn’t know at least one of them. So it’s not entirely inconceivable that your employees might have a few good ideas of their own.

TREAT PEOPLE LIKE RESOURCES

I know how annoying it is to have labor costs. I, too, yearn for the heady days of the early Industrial Revolution, when you could shove workers into tenement housing and force them to bathe in mercury because class-action lawsuits hadn’t yet taken off. But alas, people have this nasty habit of striking and/or burning down your factory when you treat them like parts of a machine. Today’s worst leaders do this in subtler ways, mostly by looking at labor cost as a dollar amount and completely ignoring the unquantifiable intellectual capital that comes with a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. If you need to cut costs and your first instinct is to reduce your headcount, then you shouldn’t bother reading any books about improving your corporate culture – because you don’t really have one to begin with.

As you can see, being a terrible leader takes a decent amount of work. Curiously enough, it also takes a decent amount of work to be a good leader. I dare say it requires an equal amount of work to do both. So, all things being equal, why not choose the good path? Crazy thought, I know, but I’m throwing it out there anyway.

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