15 Scary Signs of Lousy Leadership

lousy leaders leadership

Right from Jump Street, let me be clear about something: I don’t mean you should be scared of these lousy leaders we’re about to describe. Far from it. The lousy leaders that pull the nonsense we’re about to talk through deserve neither your fear nor your respect, though they’ll try to bully you into giving them both or make you miserable until you do.

But if you see some of what I’m describing below, it should scare you into giving serious thought to your work environment, because these are all huge leadership red flags. Translation: you should probably be really considering getting out of Dodge, my friend. That, or you may end up making a deal with the devil or something. (Ok, so the devil reference may have been a little heavy-handed with the Halloweenish stuff I suppose, but you’ll forgive me, right?)

So what are these scary signs? Here you go.

1. Lousy leaders bully. 

This can take many forms, some of them overt, many more covert.

2. Lousy leaders are passive-aggressive.

It’s like a way of life with some of these leaders. You know the type.

3. Lousy leaders are emotionally abusive.

They tear into people because they can. If they break people down emotionally, they’re quick to spout nonsense about the other person being “too emotional” or something instead of acknowledging what every single other person around them knows: that they’re just a huge jerk. You see, emotional abuse is a weapon for these types of leaders. It’s a weapon used to gain and maintain power and control. The more often it works, the more often these sociopathic leaders will use it. It’s frightening — nay, chilling — how familiar the description of a sociopathic leader sounds if you’ve had the unfortunate experience of encountering one at some point in your journey.

4. Lousy leaders harass.

This can take all forms. Emotional. Verbal. And so on. Oh, the horror stories I could share. (Do I get additional bonus points for employing yet another Halloween-related word in my Halloween-themed post?)

5. Lousy leaders scheme.

They’re always playing some sort of game. They’re always scheming, sometimes by themselves, and sometimes with others. They’re typically worked up into a tizzy anytime they feel at all threatened, or any time they feel like their lousy leadership might be exposed. At that point, expect the scheming to kick into high gear.

6. Lousy leaders lie.

And not just here and there. It’s almost a way of life. If it will serve their purpose, they’ll lie. If it will keep them out of trouble, they’ll lie. If it will get them what they want, they’ll lie. If it will hurt someone they want to hurt, they’ll lie. If it will gain them favor with someone, they’ll lie. If it will result in financial gain, they’ll lie. If it will keep them out of trouble in a relationship, they’ll lie. If they’re bored, they’ll lie. If they’re wearing socks, they’ll lie. If it’s a day that the sun rose in the east, they’ll lie.

7. Lousy leaders manipulate.

They alter stories just a touch to get people to side with them on something. They exert emotional pressure on people to get them to do what they want. The employ guilt as a weapon. Everyone and everything is a pawn to these leaders.

Lousy leaders use people as pawns. #leadership #companyculture #hr Click To Tweet

8. Lousy leaders leech.

For more on this one, click the link above.

9. Lousy leaders serve themselves instead of their team.

They’re the antithesis of servant leadership. Everything is ultimately about them. They don’t give two shekels about their team when it comes down to it. The team is just there to do what they’re told and make them look good.

Lousy leaders primarily serve themselves, not their teams. #leadership #companyculture Click To Tweet

10.  Lousy leaders never take responsibility for anything.

Everything negative is rationalized away. Everything. Everything is someone else’s fault. Leaders like this can turn over teammate after teammate after teammate, but they’ll have a story for every single one of them. All the while, research tells us that people leave managers. So when people leave (or even take demotions to escape), those leaders will be there with a story and reason as to why this is anything but their fault. Poor chemistry on these leaders’ teams? “Oh, some of them are bad apples,” they will no doubt say, rather than owning their poor leadership. People leaving their teams? “Oh, they had better opportunities.” Or, “They just weren’t a good fit for us,” will be the rationalization, rather than anything remotely close to owning the mess their leadership has created.

Lousy leaders avoid #accountability at all costs. #leadership #companyculture #hr Click To Tweet

11. Lousy leaders are quick to throw others under the bus.

Closely related to the above, leaders like this have no qualms about shoving folks into oncoming traffic. In fact, to them, it’s almost an art form.

12. Lousy leaders divide, rather than unite, people.

They pit people against each other. They pit departments against each other. They spread gossip, even amongst members of their own team. I’ve seen leaders like this; they just can’t help themselves.

Lousy leaders divide people instead of uniting them. #leadership #companyculture Click To Tweet

13. Lousy leaders’ egos are incessantly out of control.

They need to be praised and worshipped and idolized, and if no one does it, by god, they’ll actually do it themselves. Just watch — they will literally bring up things that they think you should be praising them for and then wait for you to praise them. That, my friends, is what happens when unbridled ego and a complete lack of self-awareness combine into one, ugly mess.

14. Lousy leaders are obsessed with status.

Related to the previous point, but manifesting slightly differently, leaders like this desperately need to appear to be…something. They need the biggest office. They need not just a big salary, but a bigger one. They won’t say it out loud, but they need to be fawned over. They pout when they feel they’re not treated like royalty. They’ll clamor for more attention if they’re not getting enough.

Lousy leaders need their ego fed; they need status and power. #leadership Click To Tweet

15. Lousy leaders take credit for their teams’ successes, but blame the team for their failures.

When the team does well, they’re quick to take credit. Sure, they may toss out the obligatory acknowledgement to the team, but you can tell it’s just that — an obligation. Then they return to their regularly scheduled program of prattling on about how awesome they are. The irony, of course, is that their team is doing great work in spite of their leadership, not because of it. On the other hand, when things go sideways, these leaders aren’t nearly so quick to take the credit. In those cases, they’re oh so happy to point out that this or that individual didn’t do this or that and thus that individual — not the leaders themselves — failed. (Sigh)

Scary stuff, right? Most of us have seen stuff like this first hand. I know I have. And it’s too bad, because leaders like this can gut a team and organization.

Did I miss any? Have any thoughts to add? Share them in the comments! Happy Halloween!

13 thoughts on “15 Scary Signs of Lousy Leadership

  • These are quite vague statements you make. It would be constructive if you gave real-world examples of actions or statements that leaders with these traits exhibit. One man’s bully is another man’s determined leader.

    • Well yes, I suppose by virtue of them being brief and basic you could say they’re vague, but then again, the point of the above was just to provide some basic points within the context of Halloween post. In reality, every single one of these fifteen could easily be almost its own research paper, right? But that’s not really the point of a blog like this.

      To your comment that “One man’s bully is another man’s determined leader,” I would respectfully disagree. Those two words mean two very different things. Someone exhibiting characteristics of determination, by definition, is showing resoluteness, right? They’re demonstrating a firmness of purpose. Strength of character. Resolve. None of those have the same meaning as bullying. Bullying in the context of leadership, again by definition, involves using power, authority, influence, or position to intimidate, coerce, threaten, harass, strong-arm, and so on. The two are not synonymous. Bullying is bullying. Determination is determination. One is not the other.

    • Thanks a lot, Skip! Appreciate it. And yes, we’ve all seen leaders like this in action, and they’re truly terrifying.

  • Matt,
    Good read, had a question though, are you saying that good leaders, don’t do this at all, or do they do more good than harm?
    Cause I was going through the list, and I am sure I am guilty of a few of these characteristics. Would love to work on my faults to make me a better leader.

    Thank you.

    • Tarun,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the question. Others may have different thoughts on this, but here’s mine. There are absolutely no perfect leaders out there. I’m certainly not one. The things in this list, though, should be viewed as tendencies, if that makes sense. So for example, does a leader tend to lie a lot? Well, if so, that’s pretty scary, and a huge red flag. That being said, there’s not a human being alive who’s never, ever lied. The difference is that for some, lying is a normal part of how they lead and do business.

      Another example that might help would be ego. Every human has an ego. You do. I do. Everyone does. How we all differ, however, is how we deal with our ego. To what degree does our ego drive and control us? To what degree does feeding our ego motivate our actions? Does our ego drive us to narcissism? Or, on the other hand, do we recognize that while everyone has an ego, it’s something that we must be aware of and keep in check, constantly striving to be others-oriented? Do we take intentional steps to cultivate a spirit of humility? Do we embrace a philosophy of servant leadership, wherein leadership is a vehicle for service rather than a means to some other end (status, power, money, etc)?

      Does that make sense? Hope it helped. If it didn’t, let me know, and I’ll give it another whirl. It was a late night (the Royals were winning the World Series!), so it wouldn’t surprise me if what I just wrote was entirely gobbledygook.

  • Great posting! It is unfortunate but yes we have all seen and worked for a leader with one or usually more of these traits. I have found that a few of them tend to run together. Those that manipulate also tend to lie, have a huge out of control ego, and are controlling schemers. Very sad!
    I enjoyed reading your reply above discussing that none of us are perfect and at one time or another we can each exhibit some form of these traits as well. I believe that reading articles such as this and the conversations that follow serve as good reminders of how NOT to be. If we are aware of these traits we can become aware of what might trigger us to lean in that direction. If we are aware we are then able to correct ourselves and our own behaviors to keep on a servant leader path.
    Thanks for the great info and reminder!

    • You’re right, Wendie; and that’s a great point. Often, many of these do tend to “run together,” as you said. One particular grouping of these is what psychologists/psychiatrists call the Dark Triad, believe it or not (feel free to look that up for some fun reading).

      And you’re spot on in your second paragraph as well. Self-awareness is such critical component of leadership. We have to be willing to look in the mirror and ask ourselves tough questions. Further still, and more importantly, we have to be willing to give brutally honest answers to those questions. Self-awareness, coupled with humility, is what enables leaders to continue to grow. All leaders stumble; of that there is no doubt. But self-awareness and humility are what help us get up again and continue on our journey to more fully embracing servant leadership.

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