10 Terrible Traits of Lousy Leaders

There is a short, three letter hop from leading to misleading. Having a position of leadership is a paramount calling in life. You have a lot of responsibilities. It is hard to be a leader. The truth is, as flawed humans, most of us who lead in anything have a very short step to being a misleader. Teachers are also leaders of their classrooms. Here are ten ways leaders become misleaders:

 [callout]First published May 16, 2012. Updated: April 20, 2015[/callout]

1. You become a misleader when you let popular opinion steal your purpose.

Having a purpose will bring you joy. Eric Liddel, the famous runner depicted in Chariots of Fire, said,

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel God's pleasure.”

Purpose gives meaning to your work.

“Study after study shows that people who have created meaning in their lives are happier and more satisfied with their lives.” (Steger, Oishi & Kashdan 2008) quoted in The 5 Skills that Will Increase Your Happiness

An educator who loses purpose quickly loses hope. Sometimes popular initiatives run counter to the purpose of why we teach.

Just because something is popular doesn't mean it is RIGHT.  Just because someone is a respected authority does not mean you check your brain at the door. Weak leaders hide in the herd even if the herd is heading for a cliff. Afraid to stand alone, they are forgetting the purpose of keeping those in their charge safe and on track. Good leaders break from the herd when it is running the wrong way.

Protecting the love of learning is not a line item in the budget. Children can be counted, but they aren't numbers. Learning can be observed — sort of — but it is as hard to measure as how much I love my husband. Anything that obscures the purpose of our profession should be watched vigilantly like an enemy at the gate. I'm not saying things like data-driven analysis can't help us — it can help us know our students and personalize learning. But the moment you see numbers and not students, you've lost sight of your purpose. Lose your purpose, lose your joy.

When I think of this struggle for keeping the purpose of education versus popular opinion, I think of an interview with visionary superintendent Pam Moran  on Every Classroom Matters. Pam said,

“A number of years a go we started a path that we needed to do much more than No Child Left Behind, we saw it sucking the life out of classrooms. The more we saw schools get pulled into the “test prep curriculum” that what we saw was both kids and teachers consumed with and worried with and constantly focusing on how to take a four choice, one answer right test. Very soon we said after the implementation of NCLB, we said that isn't what we want for our students or teachers. We know we'll have to test but the reality is that we want something more… we looked to see how a school system could implement a balanced assessment system that centered around what we thought was important.”

Don't think that Pam is making excuses for poor test scores. Her district (which also has many Title I schools) has a 93% graduation rate and is in the top 3% of all districts in the US and Canada for their AP Test scores. She did not let popular opinion or even mandates keep her from her PURPOSE of doing what is best for students.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi dissident, said,

“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”

Pam and her district leaders got off the train but still made it to a destination of better learning. Martin Luther King, Jr said,

“Our lives begin to end when we begin to be silent about the things that matter.”

[callout]Be brave enough to stand against yourself when you're wrong. Be courageous enough to jump off the train. Have enough hustle to go out and assemble a new train. Always question popular opinion when it goes against the purpose of helping students.[/callout]

2. You become a misleader when you become mislead by flattery or too deeply wounded by insults.

Pride will kill you faster than a poison blowgun dart in a rainforest. When people start praising you, it is better to turn a deaf ear than listen too much. We may crave recognition, but good leaders would rather be useful. Flattery believed becomes a person deceived. All too often, leaders would rather “be ruined by praise than saved by criticism” (as Norman Vincent Peale says).

I've found that lousy leaders make poor decisions and then throw out a cast net for validation. They surround themselves with people who agree with them, not people who will offer an opinion and give wise counsel. Samuel Goldwyn, the famed movie producer, said,

“I don't want yes-men around me. I want everyone to tell the truth, even if it costs them their jobs.”

If you don't have problems, start worrying about your leadership. Colin Powell, a US general, says

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

There are many ways to solve problems. Complaining isn't one of them. John Maxwell says in How Successful People Think,

“The truth will set you free – but first it will make you angry.”

Criticism stings. But all criticism is not equal. In Michael Hyatt's “The Real Difference Between the Wise and the Foolish,” Michael outlines the three types of critics. Some critics are trolls. They love drama. A recent study on Internet trolls found

“Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

Hurting people hurt people. Some love the drama. So, you have to learn to recognize the trolls and learn to avoid them. If you have to deal with a troll, keep your ears open and your heart behind a bulletproof vest. The second type of person Hyatt discusses are the critics. These people have no agenda and usually have a valid point. Finally, your friends who criticize should be listened to deeply. They love you and want you to do well.

[callout]As American politician Adlai Stevenson said, “Flattery is all right as long as you don't inhale.” The American author Mason Cooley said, “Flattery and insults raise the same question: What do you want?” Flattery and insults are all about the person giving them — not you. These people don't want what is best for you. In the end, problems and criticism are part of life, and the effective leader responds and adjusts to both.[/callout]

3. You become a misleader when you think you can make everyone feel good about change or when you leave them out of the change making process.

There is an excellent chapter in 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done about change. It says if you know you're going to jump into a river, it is worse to hang on the rope swing than it is just to jump. No matter how inevitable the river of change is, some people are going to hang onto that rope until pushed or pulled off of it. If you wait until everyone feels good about the change, you'll wait too long.

There are lots of smart, legendary people who didn't like change. The Greek Poet Callimachus said books were “a great evil.” Plato didn't like writing either. His character, King Thamus says that a dependence on written words will

“weaken men's characters and create forgetfulness in their souls.” (The Organized Mind p 14)

They had always educated orally. Indeed, they had  significant experiences sitting on rocks and memorizing what they heard. But as baseball Hall of Famer Babe Ruth said,

“Yesterday's home runs don't win today's games.”

But so often the problem is not about change. Ken Blanchard says in Leading at a Higher Level

“People often resent change when they have no involvement in how it should be implemented. So, contrary to popular belief, people don't resist change – they resist being controlled.” (216)

Todd Whitaker's 1993 research on the best principals (mentioned in What Great Principals Do Differently: Eighteen Things That Matter Most) says that the best principals

“Routinely consult informal teacher leaders for input before making a decision.”

Most schools have V8 engines running like a V4. If I'm on a mountain in my SUV and I have a big challenging hill to climb, I want all of the pistons in my engine firing! Why wouldn't I hit the button and engage the full power of my engine? Principals who lead without teacher input aren't firing with all their cylinders, in more ways than one.

[callout]Organization change requires a change from everyone in your organization. Leave them out and lose momentum. Expect to make them all happy and lose your mind.[/callout]

Toxic meeting syndrome can cause meetings to be little more than face to face announcement sessions. Highly functioning teams collaborate, they don't just congregate.

Toxic meeting syndrome can cause meetings to be little more than face to face announcement sessions. Highly functioning teams collaborate; they don't just congregate.

4. You become a misleader when you mistake meetings for action.

American journalist Dave Barry said,

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and will never achive its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.'

Economist Thomas Sowell went as far to say

“People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.”

Highly functioning teams collaborate; they don't just congregate. Too many organizations are dying because of toxic meeting syndrome.  A syndrome is a characteristic of habits that typically occur together. Organizations with toxic meeting syndrome have dysfunctional meeting habits that poison the organization's productivity. Symptoms of toxic meeting syndrome include:

  • meeting because you always meet at that time not because you have anything to do,
  • using meetings for low-collaborative tasks like announcements,
  • as a substitute dysfunctional communications,
  • letting participants hijack the meeting for unproductive conversations that demoralize others,
  • an agenda set by the behavior of the lowest-performing employees instead of helping everyone move to higher performance,
  • and even worse– verbal abuse.

Why does a meeting need to take an hour? It is because people aren't aren't reading their emails or doing their jobs? Some leaders use meetings as an announcement time. Announcements can be handed out on paper. Deal with problems. Collaborate. Hypocritical leaders want classrooms to be exciting but let staff meetings be boredom central.

[callout]You can use the words productive and meeting in the same sentence. Leaders study how to run effective meetings. They know when to hold them. They know how to engage collaboration and get input. They know how to neutralize time-wasting morale-killing Grumbledores. [/callout]

(OK, I'll let you in on a private joke. Dumbledore is the master of Hogwart's school in Harry Potter. He is in charge of everything. In my mind, Grumbledore is my name for the lead whiner. Somehow they think they can straighten out the school by propelling it forward with their whining. Whining is a diminishing activity. It never builds up. Ever. I admit I remind myself when these one or two people corner me that they are Grumbledore, and I should listen at my own risk lest I become one too.)

5. You become a misleader when you pretend.

Imagine a beautifully wrapped present under your Christmas tree. What if you opened it and nothing is there but air? I've been to rah-rah sessions that were nothing but air – no content. (Sound like testing pep rallies?) Don't pretend something is what it isn't. Rah Rah Rah – I'm cutting your pay – this is a good thing.

Rah, Rah.I say Bah. Be real. The psychologists who wrote Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change found,

“People become far less willing to believe what you have to say the moment they realize your goal is to convince them of something.” (59)

What are you selling? Why? It is not your job to defend everything that happens because some things stink, and everyone knows it.  A pig in a dress isn't a princess. SPut a positive spin on everything and people will think you're phony. Not everything is positive.

When talking about hard decisions, my pastor, Michael Catt, said,

“If you prune, people are going to resist you. If you don't prune, they won't respect you.”

If you have to do it. Do it. Some people need firing. Some budgets need cutting. Sometimes your best employees or students are going to be mad at you. Sometimes people won't or can't understand. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, says,

“I believe you have to be willing to be misunderstood if you're going to innovate.”

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was a General Manager for a cell phone company was being too open about some of the pressures I was under to make the numbers. When I told my employees too much about that pressure, I put them in a position they weren't able to handle emotionally.

Great leaders are buffers. They are like sea walls, breaking the waves and preventing erosion of morale. They don't mislead and pretend things are great when they are not. They make hard decisions that just are what they are. They also buffer against the big stuff that will prevent their employees or students from focusing on the main thing that is their task to do.

[callout]Don't pretend everything is perfect. It isn't. Here's the deal. You've got to be honest on one hand and a buffer on the other (and have the wisdom to know the difference).[/callout]

6. You become a misleader when you handle private issues publicly or play favorites.

The teacher who openly “calls out” a child without “naming names” is a coward. Everyone knows. The principal who publicly “calls out” a teacher or group of teachers without “calling names” is a coward too. Cowards are afraid of dealing with issues in the right way: privately and directly. They use their position of authority to deliver a backhanded slap that erodes the respect of all who hear. If you don't have the guts to deal with a problem face to face then to resort to just “calling out” in public will only make you look even more impotent. If only one person is the offender, deal with that one and let the rest in the room not feel false guilt for something they haven't done.

A woman dealing with an aging parent may need to be treated differently for a time than someone not in that situation. When you make blanket statements in public, you put everyone on alert to see if you're going to treat everyone the same. It is always best to handle it in private because it isn't your employees' job to determine what is fair – it is yours.

For example, if you only “call out” the unacceptable behavior of some but put up with it from your “favorites” it reeks of favoritism. Every situation is different, so it is best to handle everything privately — except favoritism issues.

Interestingly, I've found that people who are impassioned about keeping everything “fair” are the most unfair people I know. They mistake treating everyone the same with fairness. But consider this quote from famed basketball coach John Wooden,

“treating everyone the same is the surest way to show favoritism.”

In the article Favoritism is a Huge Problem, Bob Whipple makes the point that there is a difference between having favorites and playing favorites. Some people have strengths that others do not have. When you ignore this concern of favoritism, you risk problems. Whipple recommends:

“Be aware of the issue of favoritism and use the word when a decision might be perceived as practicing it. Say, ‘I'm asking George to do this budget revision again. Since I have done this in the past, I do not want to be perceived as playing favorites. George has the accounting background to do this work. If others of you would like to work with the budget, let me know and I will help you get some training so you can do it in the future.”

I love this answer because you can help others see what you need to do that task, and you open up discussions. But also be willing to test your bias. I had two students come to me recently and tell me that they thought I was playing favorites with a student. I was shocked and crushed. I totally didn't see it that way. But after I reflected, I realized what I had done and how that was perceived. I'm grateful that they thought enough of me to tell me. Managers need to be told too. Just be careful that you don't ask your “favorite.”

[callout]You can be fair without treating everyone the same or playing favorites. Being open about why tasks are assigned to people and to listening to others tell you if you play favorites will help you. When you address behavior issues privately, you give yourself more flexibility in management.[/callout]

7. You become a misleader when you have no self-discipline.

You lead by example. If you can't get to work on time or stay there when times are tough, you don't belong in leadership. If you want a comfortable life, don't sign up to be a leader. Have the self-discipline to show up for work and do your job. James Dashner says in The Maze Runner

“You get lazy, you get sad. Start givin' up. Plain and simple.”

In this book, the children trapped in the maze had to run and move forward to survive. You do too. Forward progress is progress. Basketball great Julius Irving said,

“Being a profession is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don't feel like doing them.”

[callout]Passionate professionals still have to do work. Teaching is hard. Leading is hard. Sometimes driving yourself to work when every fiber of your being wants to hit the couch is the most difficult thing of all.[/callout]


“Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.” Simon Sinek

8. You become a misleader when you use your platform for a personal agenda.

These people shout “you're just a stepping stone, not my home.” Full of promise, it is hard to follow them because they are on their way up and out. They'll do just enough to be able to claim something grand, and they are off to greener pastures, over the hill or on the Hill. We have hard problems to solve and need some consistent leaders who will stay the course in tough jobs for a period.

Simon Sinek says in Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don'’t

“The true price of leadershp is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self interest.”

[callout]Great leaders serve others. Take the time to connect with those you lead.[/callout]

9. You become a misleader when you care more about words than actions.

Words are important. They can hurt. But I'd rather use the wrong word in a sentence that describes what I should do than to do the wrong thing. Good leaders look at meaning and “cut to the chase.” Weak leaders consider themselves Semantic Saviors – who have shown up in the nick of time to keep us from using the wrong word that might send us on a path of death and destruction. Words are important (and I'm not counting profanity and gross offenses here) but actions are often more important.

In the Forbes  article 12 Signs of Cowardly Leadership, author Jeff Schmitt says

“How people live is far more important than what they say. That’s especially true of leaders. When there’s a breach between rhetoric and reality, you’ll find a drained and demoralized organization riddled with distrust, dissension, and doubt.”

[callout]What gets you more upset: a misspoken word or a misdeed? Take care to back up words with action. Words alone are impotent.[/callout]

10. You become a misleader if you need popularity to lead.

Booker T. Washington, one of my edu-heroes, said,

“Most leaders spend time trying to get others to think highly of them, when instead, they should try to get their people to think more highly of themselves.”

Help others see their strengths. Realize that no matter what you do, some things aren't going to be popular.

Human judgment is harsh, and it is meted out to those in authority with an extra measure. Someone is not going to like you. Get over it. Try to be at peace with everyone if it is in your power, but if it is not, be as kind as you can, and move on.

In one of my favorite television dramas, Blue Bloods, New York Police Commissioner Frank Reagan (played by Tom Selleck), says,

“I've got skin thicker than a catcher's mitt.”

Popularity is a fickle thing and rarely belongs to revolutionaries until after the war is won. There are times in our lives that doing the right thing means doing the unpopular thing. Thank goodness Winston Churchill didn't need everyone's approval to lead. His country needed someone to speak against the widespread pessimism of his countrymen. They needed someone to yank them up out of the ashes and encourage them to fight for existence. We need that in education today.

[callout]If you're going to serve in schools as a teacher or administrator for longer than a week, you need to have a thick skin. Pleasing everyone is a recipe to please no one. You'll have no one's respect, not even your own. Sometimes you must stand against popular pessimism and lead others into a brighter future.[/callout]

The end of the school year is a hard time of year to be a leader in education. Whether you are in the classroom or the boardroom, everyone is tired, and it is easy for tempers to flare. Just like my other post 10 Ways to be a Terrible Teacher, it is so easy to criticize and many of these things we may all be guilty of doing. There are certainly more on the list, and I challenge you to consider and share in the comments.
I have to note that these 10 are a compilation of things I've observed over a long period. You've told me your stories, and I get them over email. I have good leaders at my school as proven our results in the classroom and on the athletic field. Also, remember that sometimes the dysfunction starts way above the leader's head. If you're in an organization (like a board of directors or school board) that works with leaders to LET THEM LEAD but hold them accountable. A board that micromanages is creating an unhealthy organization stymied by the whims of a diverse group of people who may or may not be an expert in the type of organization they are intended to advise. Boards should set policy and leave day to day operations to those in charge.
If you're fortunate enough to have a great leader at the helm or in the classroom, appreciate them and treat them well, leadership seems to be a scarce resource these days.
Be a great leader. Serve. Have vision. Lead on.
Photo credit: Bigstock

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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