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Death by Mediocre Leadership: How Bad Leaders Are Sucking the Life Out of Your Company

Our research reveals hard truths about the current state of leadership, identifying the top five characteristics of mediocre leaders and those behaviors that define accountable leadership.

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Posted On Jun 01, 2019 
I knew it was bad. But I had no idea it was this bad.


Each year, I travel the globe to help all kinds of organizations build accountable leaders. We usually start by talking about best practices, but the conversation ultimately turns to just how woeful the leaders are in those organizations. It got me wondering—just how bad is the current state of leadership?

To help answer this question, I began to take a pulse survey at events I attended and with organizations that called me in to speak to their leaders. I began to build a database of the worst kinds of leadership behavior and then asked the people in my audiences to acknowledge whether this behavior describes the people who are leading them. 
To ensure that I wasn’t just capturing a blip, I extended my research with various online surveys that reached out to hundreds of leaders in North and South America.
The results—which eventually captured more than 1,800 responses—confirmed a fear I had long held: mediocre leaders are everywhere.
The top five characteristics of mediocre leaders were alarmingly consistent regardless of continent, country or leadership position.

Willingness to Blame Others. These leaders consistently pass the buck when something goes wrong. When the going gets tough, they always find a finger to point at someone else.

Selfish to a Fault. Some leaders are only in it for themselves. They take as much as they can from the job, for as long as they can, without regard to the welfare of anyone else.

Uncivil and Mean. These leaders regularly and routinely mistreat, disrespect and insult the people around them. They believe that demeaning the people they lead is a sign of strength.

Generally Inept. Some leaders have risen to a station well above their skills and experience. These leaders simply do not have the right instincts for leadership.

Lack of Initiative. When decisive action is needed, these leaders delay, defer, procrastinate and prevaricate. They show up every day and do nothing and hope that nobody notices.
Remarkably, there was a high degree of alignment between leaders in North and South America, who all identified the same top five mediocre leadership characteristics with only slight variations in priority. South American respondents ranked selfishness as the number two feature, while North Americans found ineptness to be the second most common mediocre leadership characteristic.

As profound as the survey’s main results were, the real emotional impact for me came from the open-ended responses that we captured. 
After asking people to identify the qualities of mediocre leadership that they witnessed on a day-to-day basis, I asked respondents to describe how mediocre leadership impacts their sense of engagement and commitment. The responses we got back were deeply emotional and, quite frankly, bordered on despondency.
“It’s such a struggle to come to work,” said one middle manager from North America. “It’s worse if you manage a group of people who look up to you. Slowly but surely, you die a little at a time.”
Death by mediocre leader was a constant theme in the open-ended responses. Many respondents cited “frustration,” “anxiety” and “depression” as the symptoms of working for mediocre leaders, along with the feeling that it was akin to “hitting your head against a wall.” 
“Mediocre leaders suck the very energy, drive and ‘can do’ spirit out of you,” said another manager.
Many respondents noted how mediocre or mediocre leaders breed mediocre performance in the people they lead. “When I see poor leaders, it demotivates me to do my job.” Or, as another manager put it, “mediocrity does not inspire people to do their best work or go above and beyond what they already do.”
This was such a constant theme, it was hard to ignore the link between mediocre leaders and mediocre performance. “When leaders ignore their best people and ideas, maintaining the status quo is easiest for them,” said another middle manager from North America. “After a while, we’re all just treading water.”
Unsurprisingly, working for a mediocre leader was among the biggest reasons that people quit. “You can’t learn from them, you can’t admire them, so you start thinking about looking for another job.”
This survey also helps bolster data Lee Hecht Harrison has collected in other research, including our global Leadership Accountability Survey (LAS), which has, over the past two years, asked hundreds of senior human resource professionals to reflect on the leadership culture of their organizations. 

The LAS found that, regardless of language, region or country, there were two important realities about the state of leadership today.

First, everyone recognizes that effective, accountable leadership is a must for business success. We found that across the world, about 75 percent of all LAS respondents acknowledged that accountable leadership is critical to success. The second reality the survey confirmed was that only about 30 percent of responding HR professionals believe they are doing enough to develop the leaders they need.

This survey certainly begs the question: if less than a third of HR professionals are unhappy with their leadership culture, what are they left with? Based on our survey results, what’s left are leaders who blame others, who are selfish, abusive and generally ineffective. Or, as I like to call it, truly unaccountable leaders.

Now, before you stop reading because you are simply too depressed about the current state of leadership, I’d like to assure you that there is hope. It will require some dedicated effort, but this is a situation that can be fixed.

It all starts with the willingness of companies to establish clear expectations around the need for leaders to be truly accountable in all that they say and do. 

You might be shocked to find out how few organizations do that now. Even those that spend substantial sums of money on leadership development never get around to defining the kind of leaders they want. It’s hardly surprising then that unaccountable, toxic leaders are allowed to run amok when they’ve never been told clearly that their behavior is unacceptable.

How then can we define accountable leadership?

When we looked at industry-leading companies, there were five major strategies that we identified that can help reduce the instances of mediocre or toxic leadership.

Hold others accountable for high standards of performance. Truly accountable leaders articulate clear standards and expectations for the people they lead and do not suffer mediocrity. They always challenge their teams and colleagues to aim for high standards of performance. While in many ways this is an obvious point, and one we would expect to see in practice, it is clear that it is not widely demonstrated as frequently as one would expect. 

Tackle tough issues and make difficult decisions. Truly accountable leaders proactively resolve to deal with tough issues. They don’t let nagging problems weigh them down. They understand that procrastinating in the face of an obvious problem undermines their ability to lead. It essentially erodes the confidence of the people they are leading. 

Clearly communicate the company’s strategy. Accountable leaders ensure that the people they lead are exposed to and understand their organization’s strategy. This creates the foundation of accountability, as employees understand clearly what they are expected to do to make the company successful.

Express optimism about the company and its future. Accountable leaders are passionate about their companies and express this enthusiasm daily to their teams. This has a direct connection to employee engagement. If leaders are not excited about what they are trying to do, then their employees will never be.

Closely study external trends and events. Many leaders I find are so focused on the execution, they spend precious little time looking at what competitors are doing or what’s happening in the global economy. In contrast, accountable leaders continually scan their environment to identify opportunities, threats and solutions. And they make sure their teams are scanning their environments as well.

After you impart these five behaviors, you can then go about rebuilding your leadership culture. This will involve some tough decisions.

After assessing the state of your current leadership class against expectations, you will find a group that can adopt the principles of accountable leadership with little effort. Other leaders may require substantial retraining or even reassignment to get them into a position where they can shine as leaders. 

Some may need to be moved out of the leadership ranks and back into sales or technical jobs. Still others will show you that they are really not wired for accountable leadership. If they can’t be retrained or reassigned, then they may have to be removed. 

There is too much at stake to ignore the scourge of the mediocre leader. The good news is that this problem can be fixed if you have the courage to walk the path to accountability side-by-side with your leaders.