When Leadership Goes Bad, The Reasons Run Deep!

It’s no picnic running things, especially when dysfunction runs rampant or performance is tanking. All too often, we get promoted to leadership positions when things are in disarray. 

The lure, of course, is our chance to be heroic, a miracle worker, a superstar! So we say, “Yes, I relish the challenge.” They say, “Great! Good luck,” something we’ll desperately need. 

Classic mistakes 

As soon as we get tapped as the “leader,” we want to get into it. Bring on the challenges: 

  • Take on the budget
  • Get programs implemented
  • Develop new initiatives
  • Rally the employees
  • Resolve old issues 

In time, we may sense that things are going but not all that well. There’s edginess in the air, push-back by some employees, intermittent complaining, and a lack of enthusiasm. 

Surprisingly, your staff starts branding you with labels like: 

  • Impatient and driven
  • Insensitive and uncaring
  • Blunt and disrespectful
  • Arrogant and self-centered
  • A poor listener and distant 

Smart leaders know that the focus of their jobs is not the work per se: It’s on the people doing it—their employees. 

The right fixes 

Demoralized, angry, and unhappy employees become the ruin of any leader. It may take a while, but it gets you in the end. 

When leaders realize or are told that the problems they have inherited are not being resolved, two erroneous conclusions are often drawn: 

  • “It must be my personality or the way I’m coming across.”
  • “I just need to give my employees more pep talks or maybe a team- building program to get us on the same page.” 

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Smart leaders, facing difficulties, don’t ask, “What’s wrong with me?” Instead they ask, “What’s wrong here?” 

Employees rally around a leader who shows them how they can make a difference. They thrive on structure, role clarity, performance expectations, and feedback. 

If you want to turn dysfunction into employee engagement, here are the essentials: 

  • A current state of the department presentation by the leader
  • A goals grid, specifying the specific financial, operations, stakeholder, and employee goals for the current year
  • Updated position descriptions that identify job scope, accountabilities, responsibilities/duties, and qualifications
  • Specific performance goals for each employee, cascading from the department goals
  • Quarterly reports of department performance against goals 

These tools let employees know the priorities are that you, the leader, are committed to. This is how they know what counts and what doesn’t. 

I worked with two standout leaders who hired me because they were told that they had behavioral traits that were problematic. One was told that her communications style was too blunt: The other that he came across as being impatient. They both: 

  • Had taken over organizations that were in death spiral
  • Went hard at trying to right a sinking ship
  • Assumed that employees understood the severity of the situation and would follow their lead 

Instead, employees resisted, criticized, and became obstacles. They really didn’t understand how dire things were. They couldn’t see the big picture, blamed these leaders for problems past and present, resisted change, and created crippling organizational noise. 

The reality was that each leader was strong, smart, and committed. What they lacked was knowledge of performance best practice tools and how to implement them.  So they wisely regrouped, took stock, and put into place the structure employees needed. As a result, they each created a lasting fix.

Great results 

It’s a leader’s job to give employees the tools, support, and environment they need to do great work. Leaders can’t succeed without their employees, since leaders do very little “real” work. Instead, they provide structure, information and insights; remove obstacles; develop the employee capabilities; and generate momentum.   

It would be nice if every leader had a personality that we liked, but that isn’t necessary. No matter how business fit we are, we still need our leaders to provide the platform we need to do good work. If they haven’t, be bold and ask for it! 

What have been your experiences with a leader who ran amok? Was there ever a fix?

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