What Is a Leader?
Leadership is a poorly understood concept that is often confused with position or title. The confusion is due to the expectation that someone with an influential role must be a leader. However, that expectation represents an ideal, not always a reality.
Some people who climbed the ladder end up being weak leaders at their new level. They get there because were competent in a different role and one of two things occurred: either they reached a point where the power they acquired corrupted them, or they were promoted into a level of incompetency, fulfilling the premise of the Peter Principle (👈 Links to Amazon products on this site are affiliate links; this means that we may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you subscribe or purchase something through the link. That helps to pay for the cost of this site. With that said, we will never promote anything we don’t trust or haven’t used.).
Perhaps as a different twist on the Peter Principle, leaders who reach a level near or at the top of their career ladder sometimes start to display anti-leadership patterns, or leadership anti-patterns, whichever you prefer. They start buying into the idealized image in the minds of their most fervent followers. At that point, leadership can morph into an unhealthy version of command and control, and the leader can become a “toxic leader.”
The Toxic Leader and Leadership Anti-Patterns
Leadership anti-patterns push away all but the most devoted followers. If a person with authority displays such patterns, people who see reality and choose to stick around eventually grow resentment. They appear loyal, but their loyalty can be motivated by fear or the perception of potential future gain. Humanity has seen this happen too many times; it makes you wonder if we’ll ever learn.
Leadership anti-patterns include the following:
1. Incessant Self-promotion
We work in a competitive tech world and I am a believer that all software engineers and leaders need to work on their personal brand. However, there is a gray area between the professional curation of a personal-brand and incessant self-promotion. A good leader needs to understand the difference, and never cross that line.
Continuous self-promotion is a motif that reveals insecurity and fragility; those are not good traits for a leader. Be wary of people with authority who take every opportunity to self-promote, especially when they don’t give due credit to their team. It is not just annoying, it is dangerous.
Self-promotion comes in many different shapes and is rarely direct or blatant. Toxic leaders are often smart, and they try to avoid being too obvious.
The most damaging form of self-promotion manifests when someone takes credit for other people’s achievements or blames others for failures. An example of self-promoting and blaming comes in the form of, “I told you so” statements.
Leaders are directly responsible for the results of their team; if the team succeeds, they succeed as well. If the team fails, they fail too. In case of success, leaders do not need to highlight and advertise their particular contribution above all others. A leader is implicitly successful when the team achieves excellent results. There is no reason to make it explicit. However, leadership is not a balanced system by definition. Leaders are servants to their people and, in the case of failure, they must take full responsibility for it.
2. Lack of Integrity
Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Someone who lacks integrity cannot be trusted. Since people do not follow untrustworthy persons, integrity is a necessary component of leadership.
A leader who has authority but lacks integrity is noxious. For example, authority figures who feel that they can make and break promises without consequences are like poison. Broken promises are not forgotten, despite the lack of immediate effects. Some other examples of lack of integrity include:
- Covering up mistakes or not taking responsibility for them.
- Manipulating others for personal gain.
- Saying one thing and doing another.
- Mistreating people.
3. Weak Value System
Weak values lead to loss of trust and erode the relationship with followers equipped with a stronger or different value system. Weak values emerge as:
- Lack of respect for others, either purposeful or unintentional. Both are unacceptable, but the accidental type can be coached away, while the purposeful kind can’t.
- Lack of empathy, which is almost impossible to coach. You can teach someone what things to look for to appear empathetic, but you cannot coach somebody to care.
- Dishonest actions or behaviors, which have a significant overlap with lack of integrity and also tough to coach.
Authoritarians who lack values scare people. Their followers tend to follow because of fear or perceived potential gain. Fear-driven leadership is as toxic as it gets and manages to create chaos, fire-drills and general unrest.
The high-tech industry has seen many successful and feared leaders who lacked empathy or respect for others. The success of this kind of leader can be due to a combination of the following:
- The organization values the leader and creates a bubble around them, protecting the rest of the company from damage.
- Employees stay around because there are significant financial gains.
- The leader is an untouchable founder or someone with amazing qualities that are difficult to replace. Everyone learns to take the good with the bad.
- The leader is at the very top, and change is too complicated, expensive, or risky.
All industries have also seen their fair share of dishonest leaders. Those tend to last too long and eventually fall hard when they get caught.
4. Lack of Consistency & Persistence
Consistency and persistence are characteristics that allow leaders to be perceived as fair and embody an ability to move teams past impediments and toward possibilities. Some of the symptoms associated with lack of those characteristics include:
- Suddenly or unpredictably changing opinion.
- Giving up too early; note that giving up too late is also bad. Knowing when is the right time to give up is an important skill that every leader needs to acquire.
- Applying different standards to different people.
- Being averse to risk.
5. Lack of Vision
In Leadership is An Art, (👈 Links to Amazon products on this site are affiliate links; this means that we may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you subscribe or purchase something through the link. That helps to pay for the cost of this site. With that said, we will never promote anything we don’t trust or haven’t used.) Max DePree wrote:
The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.
Being able to define reality is a crucial skill. There is an almost infinite number of possible realities, and a leader must gather as much information as practical and choose one of them. There is never going to be all the data needed to make a perfect choice, and that’s why a leader needs to be able to take risks and thrive in the gray.
A leader needs to find the right words to portray that picture of reality whenever there is doubt, or whenever the teams start to deviate from it. Different people might need different words, but the image of what is being described need to be consistent. Inconsistencies cause chaos, and chaos is an anti-leadership state.
I call that picture of reality a “vision,” and it is the job of a leader to define it, describe it and make it clear in people’s minds. A vision is like a light in a dark room, illuminating the space, showing what’s around. Light creates clarity, and clarity creates confidence in the people that are moving around that room. Consistency and passion are the keys to be successful in creating a vision.
Lack of vision causes many problems, including the following:
- Struggling to define or explain goals.
- Struggling to define strategy.
- Being unable to inspire others.
- Lack of passion or being unable to infuse passion into others.
- Overcomplicating situations.
- Drowning the essential with the non-essential.
6. Lack of Competence
A leader must be competent enough to be able to understand, at least at a high-level, what their direct reports or teammates are doing and guide them toward the goal. A leader doesn’t need to know everything, but he or she needs to know enough to be respected and to make good decisions.
The best thing that a leader who lacks competence can do is to surround himself or herself with trusted experts and gain their respect by guiding high-level decisions without getting in the way. Acknowledging knowledge-gaps is essential to form and maintain a good relationship with experts, and for everyone to be comfortable with that gap.
A leader does not need to be down in the weeds. They can stay up above and observe and understand direction and patterns without having to get lost in the details. However, being aware and open to knowledge gaps is necessary.
The worse thing a leader with knowledge gaps can do is to make stuff up in an attempt to appear competent. In tech, is painfully obvious when somebody is making stuff up, even if whoever is listening doesn’t say anything. Engineers are used to it, but it doesn’t make it any better.
7. Lack of Execution Skills
A leader needs to be able to make decisions and effectively guide their implementation at the right level. Not too close to the details, and not too far removed from reality. If a leader is unable to guide the implementation of a decision, he or she needs to hire an expert to help.
Micromanagement is an example of lack of execution skills due to being too close to the details and in the way of people doing the work. Micromanaging is not an efficient way to guide the implementation of a decision, and is one of the hallmarks of a weak leader.
Detached leadership is another example of lack of execution skills due to being too far removed from reality. Giving a high-level direction and then disappearing without paying attention is not a great way to lead. There is a fine line between trusting and being detached.
8. Lack of Influence
The ability to deliberately influence other people is a vital component of leadership. The topic of influence is complex and the subject of many books. I’ll just define it as the ability to have an intentional effect on people to achieve desired results.
Some of the symptoms of a deficient influencer include:
- Unable to inspire people.
- Causing unintended conflicts.
- Being unable to resolve disputes.
- Inability to create meaningful relationships.
- Not being seen as helpful to others.
- Not being trusted by others.
- Unable to communicate clearly.
- Unable to be convincing.
- Lack of decisiveness.
9. Lack of Accountability
Accountability is another interesting topic. I wrote about it in an article titled Understanding accountability. When somebody lacks accountability, one or more of the following is usually true:
- They lack commitment.
- They lack transparency.
- They resist scrutiny, which results in symptoms such as:
- Defensiveness or opposing negative feedback.
- Hiding or lying about inconvenient facts.
10. Lack of Change Management Skills
Leaders need to be able to define reality, show a path to it and be instruments of the change necessary to make that journey. As a result, leaders need to be able to imagine, influence, implement and manage change.
A leader who is unable to manage change is not going to be successful, and thus lack of change management skills is an anti-leadership pattern.
Leadership is a behavior. A leader defines reality and communicates it in ways that result in people to make it their own. It is not a form of authority given by role, proclamation, or power of enforcement. It is also not a form of coercion or intimidation.