8 Traits of Ineffective Leaders

8 Traits of Ineffective LeadersI’m often asked if there is a simple test that can be used to quickly determine an executive’s leadership ability? The short answer is yes. There are in fact a great number of tests that can quickly assess leadership ability. Something as simple as a 360 Review, or as complex as a deep psychological profile (both with weighted emphasis on leadership aptitude) can point out an individual’s leadership capabilities. While much has been written about what leaders are, today’s post will highlight eight areas that will help you quickly pinpoint what leaders are not. The simple truth is that many people can feign adequate leadership ability in the short run, but the 8 traits outlined below will separate the posers from the players 11 times out of 10.

First of all, it is important to realize that just because someone is in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily mean they should be. Put another way, not all leaders are created equal. Frequent readers of this blog can find a veritable plethora of tips on becoming a better and more effective leader. However in the text that follows I’ll address how to spot ineffective leaders by assessing six critical areas of leadership DNA. While there are certainly more than six areas that can be examined when discussing leadership ability and aptitude, there is no possible way for a person in a leadership role to experience sustainable success as a senior executive if they have issues in the following areas:

  1. Poor Character: A leader who lacks character or integrity will not endure the test of time. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, affable, persuasive, or savvy a person is, if they are prone to rationalizing unethical behavior based upon current or future needs they will eventually fall prey to their own undoing.
  2. Little or No Track Record: While past performance is not always a certain indicator of future events, a long-term track record of success should not be taken lightly. Someone who has consistently experienced success in leadership roles has a much better chance of success than someone who has not. The bottom line is that unproven leaders come with a high risk premium.
  3. Poor Communication Skills: Show me a leader with poor communication skills and I’ll show you someone who will be short-lived in their position. Great leaders can communicate effectively across mediums, constituencies, and environments. They are active listeners, fluid thinkers, and know when to press-on and when to back-off.
  4. Self-Serving Nature: If a leader doesn’t understand the concept of “service above self” they will not engender the trust, confidence, and loyalty of those they lead. Any leader is only as good as his or her team’s desire to be led by them. An over abundance of ego, pride, and arrogance are not positive leadership traits. Long story short; if a leader receives a vote of non-confidence from their subordinates… game over.
  5. One Size Fits All Leadership Style: Great leaders are fluid and flexible in their approach. They understand the power of, and necessity for contextual leadership. “My way or the highway” leadership styles don’t play well in today’s world, will result in a fractured culture, and ultimately a non-productive organization. Only those leaders who can quickly recognize and adapt their methods to the situation at hand will be successful over the long haul.
  6. Lack of Focus and Follow-Through: Those leaders who lack the focus and attention to detail needed to apply leverage and resources in an aggressive and committed fashion will perish. Leaders who do not possess a bias toward action, or who cannot deliver on their obligations will not be successful. Leadership is about performance… Intentions must be aligned with results for leaders to be effective.
  7. Not Forward Looking: Leaders satisfied with the status quo, or who tend to be more concerned about survival than growth won’t do well over the long-run. The best leaders are focused on leading change and innovation to keep their organizations fresh, dynamic and growing. Bottom line – leaders who build a static business doom themselves to failure.
  8. Not Customer Focused: Leaders not attuned to the needs of the market will fail. As the old saying goes, if you’re not taking care of your customers, someone else will be more than happy to. Successful leaders focus on customer satisfaction and loyalty. They find ways to consistently engage them and incorporate them into their innovation and planning initiatives. If you ignore, mistreat, or otherwise don’t value your customer base, your days as a leader are most certainly numbered.

The moral of this story is leaders need to be honest, have a demonstrated track record of success, be excellent communicators, place an emphasis on serving those they lead, be fluid in approach, have laser focus, and a bias toward action. If these traits are not possessed by your current leadership team you will be in for a rocky road ahead…

Which of these traits stand out to you? Do you have any other signs of ineffective leaders worthy of mention? Leave a comment and share your insights with others.

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Mike MyattMike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach, author of “Leadership Matters…The CEO Survival Manual“, and Managing Director of N2Growth.

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No Comments

  1. Kamal Hassan on May 13, 2010 at 10:08 am


    I would add: 9) blind arrogance; 10) egocentric

    Thanks – Kamal

  2. Mike Farrell on May 13, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Good post, but I’m feeling devil’s advocate-like. I’m not certain that the term ineffective is strong enough — and, unfortunately, some of the folks who “succeed” for a while do lots of damage in the interim. Chainsaw Al, Tom Delay and Rudi Guiliani come to mind, as do Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Larry Summers in his Harvard President roleand the current parade of oil industry executives.

    That said, a leader who is in it for the long run, who is in fact driven by principle and values will be able to build a legacy. Charismatic types don’t necessarily build lasting greatness.

    I would probably add more traits that indicate failure — lack of intellectual rigor/honesty and lack of curiosity bother me when I encounter it. Confusing confidentiality with secretiveness is another problem.

    Of course, there’s a continuum in behavior, and range of acceptable deviance. Bill Clinton has issues, but we can’t deny his effectiveness. Jimmy Carter didn’t have those issues, but he was terribly ineffective.

  3. bserviss on May 15, 2010 at 10:03 am

    @Kamal – I think those would be under character or self serving nature

    @Mike – Good post. I think if you look closely at Carter, some of those traits become apparent – Lack of focus, communication, customer focus.

    I do think that the label “ineffective” is the worst thing you can apply to a leader. Even though normally the word is somewhat mild, in this context it is quite pejorative.

    One thing is missing – charisma. An effective leader has to have that almost undefinable feature that draws others to them.

  4. John Benfield on June 1, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Nice article. I would also add

    ##) Lack of trust. If you don’t trust your team, they never become empowered to perform at their full potential and they’ll never trust you.

  5. Chanchal on June 3, 2010 at 2:47 am

    Motivating the team is a desired quality, leader who cannot motivate his team to follow his vision/direction/believe, is designed to fail

  6. Judy on June 8, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Great piece – not sure if the order is deliberate but an I suggest creativity and innovation is number one on the list – especially with the recent news of CEOs voting this the number one leadership quality …

    Agree with Chancal and Bserviss tho – without that motivation and charisma you are missing a certain something – but it doesn’t have to be an overt Branson style charisma to be brilliant – quiet can be powerful too as long as you have that motivational key …

  7. Bill Van Eron on June 11, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    Hi Mike,
    I was glad to see your post on leadership. I spent 25 years working in one of the most admired companies – HP in it’s formulative years. Bill & Dave had it right. I witnessed really great leaders and while many had flaws, the better ones identified them, resolved them and improved. Others (unfortunately) created power structures, worked the system to their own advantage and undermined a culture that was designed for far better purposes. I carry many of the values of The HP Way with me today. I was one of the more innovative marketing and brand people in the company which became increasingly risk adverse. I see and appreciate that Mark Hurd has greatly increased HP profitability but in the eyes of most, has let the cuture die off in the process.

    Switching gears, in the old days the impact of poor leadership was poorly examined and left unchallenged till a company simply failed. then replacing that leader was highly traumatic. The newer theory of continuous Organizational Renewal is spot on as it reduces bureacracy, increases market focus, openness, and forces every aspect to challenge status quo with more fact-based insight. One of my companies – Inolytx.com – is addressing how predictive analytics increases the certainty of all strategic decisions.

    Back to the point of your post, we seem to be entering a time where all leaders need better support systems, including accountability, as the importance of grooming truly effective leaders has never been greater.

    Thanks again,


  8. Arun on August 8, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Very nice post, and always helpful to hear thoughts on this subject. For younger individuals who have recently started their careers and are still building their leadership craft, these points are certainly helpful in building a track record. For a younger individual who does not have a considerable amount of personal experience or instincts to lean/fall back on, one must rely more on data/information and hopefully sound decision-making abilities to be an effective leader. It’s like a great baseball player that didn’t become great overnight, but first mastered the fundamentals until they were second-nature, and then over time relied on instincts and experience to become great. One can learn these fundamentals, but one thing I have found difficult is how to learn “presence.” We all know of smart people who are analytical and make good decisions based upon sound analysis of data, but are not strong leaders. Great leaders, in addition to this, have an intangible presence/charisma that inspire others and make you want to work hard for them. I’d be interested in learning how this trait is developed and can it even be learned? Thanks.

  9. Anthony on October 24, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Very nice & concise brief on the subject matter, and yet I’m left with the feeling that there’s another shoe that needs to drop before all the dots are connected. There needs to be an inspirational element which, when combined with trust and proper motivation, can facilitate an internally derived culture of excellence.

    Then the big problem is in maintaining the enthusiasm during transitions at the leadership table, because in my experience there is a fairly quick turn-over at that level (~36 months, give or take, for any variety of reasons).

    Thus being forward looking, I would assume the competent executive might include a personal focus on sustainability of the positive culture vis enterprise succession planning.

    Thanks once again for sharing your expertise in this area!

    Best regards, AB

  10. Michael P. Jazzar on October 13, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    “service above self” [used as reference in #4] is the Motto of Rotary International[ wwww.rotary.org ]. Glad to read that you have used it and have recommended to others.

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