News & Insight
October 2012

Characteristics of a Poor Leader

During a series of 3-day leadership development workshops for middle managers, I asked the participants to reflect upon the “best” boss they ever had and to write down the key characteristics that made him or her so memorable. An article describing these characteristics was featured in the last issue of the WJManagement Newsletter.

At the same time, I also asked these participants to think of that one boss that stood out in their mind as the “worst” boss they ever had and to write down what made this boss so bad, including how they were made to feel by that person. These lists were then combined into a composite list, although the same things tended to come up across a great many groups. It seems the most important characteristics tend to be universal and reflect what most employees deplore in a manager. Both the consistency and the nature of what was reported is very revealing about the qualities of poor leaders and the impact they have on those they lead.

When asked to summarize such a list in a word or phrase that describes the leader, the answers most commonly given are, “A very insecure person that is uncomfortable with him/herself” and “A person that is exploitive and self-serving.”

Participants experienced this person as one who lacks confidence in their own abilities and is conflicted in their role in life. But because they are in a position of responsibility, they seek to compensate for their insecurity in ways that are often counterproductive. They are hungry for reassurance, especially from those in positions of power and influence, and tend to be deferential upward. By contrast, they tend to treat those reporting to them as tools to be used but not to be trusted. Because they are easily threatened by the prospect of a subordinate making a mistake, they can be rigid controllers. Many have been promoted for their subject matter expertise, rather for their leadership skills, and they tend to insist that work be done their way. Consequently, they have difficulty delegating, and are critical of subordinate initiative. They tend to be low risk takers and suspicious of change. Often, they compete openly with peers, and are defensive when challenged.

These leaders see their role as protector of the status quo and measure their success by how well they ingratiate themselves with superiors and avoid embarrassing errors. Subordinates are “managed” to conform to the leader’s demands, which can be mercurial and unstable from day to day. Compliance is the order of the day. However, in a changing business environment, such leaders tend to be pushed out of their comfort zones and become increasingly erratic in their behavior as they try to adapt to the changing demands. When they are confronted by superiors about declining performance, they tend to cast blame on subordinates and peers. People who report to these leaders find the experience punishing and demeaning. They seldom receive praise and rarely grow from such an experience.

What can we conclude from these findings? A partial list might include the following:
Here is the composite list:

  • People who are promoted into positions of leadership responsibility based on their subject matter expertise alone are often locked into their way of doing things as the basis of their value to the organization. They may not be open to other approaches.
  • Poor leaders tend to be preoccupied with their own need for reassurance by others, particularly by superiors, and care little about the development of their subordinates.
  • Because of their insecurity, they tend to be overly self-protective or self-promoting in their behavior. Either way, they are ineffective leaders, and their organizational performance is disappointing.
  • Subordinates experience such leaders as moody and unpredictable, lacking in integrity.
  • They also find their professional development arrested in such an environment. They are disrespected and treated as means to the leader’s ends.
  • Poor leaders are threatened by change and seldom produce innovative approaches to new business conditions. Subordinate initiatives are met with skepticism, and if they prove to be successful, the leader often claims the credit.
  • Poor leaders look for cues from their superiors on what view to have on new issues. They lack the confidence in their own judgment to form their own independent views. Consequently, they are seen as political animals, and not good role models for their subordinates.
  • Because of their controlling nature, poor leaders tend to attract compliant subordinates.
  • Poor leaders tend to view as successors those who most resemble themselves and their view of what is expected.



  • Micromanaged my work (I was not allowed to modify or question existing procedures and protocols)
  • Mistakes and oversights were treated as evidence of incompetence rather than as learning opportunities and past errors were rehashed.
  • Leader’s moods and behavior were erratic and unpredictable (I had no consistent pattern that I could trust…stress levels were high)
  • Tends to be deferential upward and demeaning down
  • Blames own mistakes on others, especially subordinates and peers, while taking credit for subordinate work that is praiseworthy
  • Fearful and suspicious of change until and unless embraced by own senior management
  • Easily embarrassed and offended
  • Uses people and values things/status trappings/perks
  • Hordes information
  • Manipulative
  • Bases decisions on limited input, shoots from the hip (not always right, but seldom in doubt)
  • Holds grudges and past negative evaluations (views tend to persist despite changes in performance and behavior…unforgiving)
  • Opinionated
  • Pompous and arrogant/self-centered
  • Labels people and is not open to new insights about them
  • Cynical, and can be abusive in relationships

WJM Faculty Member Robert Goodell is an executive coach with over 25 years of experience assisting leaders, teams and organizations in effectively managing change.

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