5 Traits of a Lousy Leader

UPDATED: April 18, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 26, 2019
angry woman yelling at two male coworkers

You have three main assets that helped you become a leader: your record, your in-depth industry knowledge and your years of experience with your clientele.

That’s the good news.

The bad news? None of these three traits will help you answer the question of how to be a great leader.

And that is really, really bad news because organizations with the highest quality leaders are 13 times more likely to outperform their competition in key bottom-line metrics such as financial performance, customer engagement and customer satisfaction, according to a survey by Development Dimensions International.

Related: 5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership

So what will move you from lousy leader to a team hero? In my 25 years of mentoring and teaching the world’s greatest teams, I’ve discovered five consistent flaws that all lousy leaders have in common. Here’s what they are and how to avoid them:

1. Lack of Trust in Leadership

Effective leadership requires trust at all levels. Most leaders have not created what I call “high trust” with their teams. Trust is the number one currency in business, and it’s becoming more important every day. Your top goal as a leader is to create an environment of the highest trust possible.

Starting with you, a ripple effect of trust reaches to the furthest edges of your organization and its impact. Evaluate the level of trust in your business by asking these questions:

  • Do you trust your team?
  • Does your team trust you?
  • Does your team trust each other?
  • Do your customers trust your team?
  • Does your team trust your customers?
  • Do your customers’ customers trust you?

Sadly, most leaders are lacking in this trust-building aspect of effective leadership. In fact, a survey conducted by Age Wave with Harris Interactive found that only 36 percent of employees believe their leaders act with honesty and integrity. And the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in CEOs has dropped to an all-time low of 37 percent.

How will you know if your team trusts you? They’ll have faith in the vision of your business. Leadership is helping your people believe in something before you tell them to do something. This kind of out-front leadership requires trust. Identify the holes in your organization’s trust level and fix them.

2. Authority Over Leadership Competence

One of the primary traits of successful leaders is quite simply leadership skill. Not industry knowledge or tenure, but real competence in the area of leading people.

Most ineffective leaders are “leading” from a position of authority and not competence. How do you know if this is you? There are a couple of signs.

First, lousy leaders don’t have a mentor or a leadership development plan. When you use a title to get people to follow you, your potential to demotivate people, derail a project, kill an initiative and ultimately damage the company are much higher. It’s time to invest time in learning how to be a great leader.

Second, you might be afraid to admit your weakness. Insecure leaders pretend and pose, but secure leaders are transparent and vulnerable. We all have weaknesses. Your weaknesses are someone else’s job description. The moment you step away from your core competency, your effectiveness is marginalized and the entire organization suffers. When you tell your team what you’re weakest at, your weakness will no longer be reflected in the organization. Focusing on your giftedness and staying in that sweet spot is where the most impact occurs.

Companies with a low level of employee engagement have a 33 percent annual decline in operating income and an 11 percent annual decline in growth, according to the 2007 Global Workforce Study.

You can’t always rely on your company to provide the leadership development you need. In fact, 83 percent of organizations say it is important to develop leaders at all levels, but only 5 percent have fully implemented development at all levels. Create a leadership development plan for yourself or with the help of a mentor that will strengthen your strengths and bring out your best leadership qualities.

3. No Emotional Connection With Your Team

Too often, I see a lack of emotional connection with teams blamed on leadership style. If you’re not deeply connected emotionally with your followers, you are missing a vital leadership quality.

Moving anyone to a physical action requires an emotional connection. Connection impacts adoption, utilization and success outcomes. You can’t afford to ignore it in favor of a disconnected or distant management style.

Your number one job as a leader is impact. The impact you have on your team is vital to their ability to perform at the highest levels.

In a 2017 research study, Gallup found that 70 percent of the variance between lousy, good and great cultures can be found in the knowledge, skills and talent of the team leader.

Don’t kid yourself: Your impact with your team is either advancing your company or holding it back.

The first step is to understand what motivates and inspires your team. What triggers them to perform and what inspires them to stay consistent? What’s the reason behind what they do? What’s their why?

Make the connection with your team. Turn down the promotion and turn up the emotion. You can tell people all day long what to do, but if you don’t tie it into what’s in it for them and what the outcome will be, they won’t do it for very long.

4. No Leadership Investment in People

Building a successful team requires investment of resources, time and attention. The most important brand decision you will ever make is helping others win.

At one of our executive leadership training events this year, I asked a roomful of top leaders to raise their hand if they had a plan to help their people achieve their long-term professional goals. Less than 3 percent of room put their hand up.

Remember the first trait we talked about? It’s trust. People only follow you if they trust that in doing so, they’re likely to have a better future. Invest in your team’s emotional, physical, intellectual and professional well-being.

To do this effectively, you have to identify what each person wants to accomplish. Be crystal clear on where someone wants to go, what their goals are and why they want to accomplish that. When you understand what drives them, work with them to create a personal development plan for them.

If you’re afraid of losing people by helping them achieve their career aspirations, you’ve got it wrong. A study by Career Builder found that 37 percent of employees leave due to bad leadership. In fact, a survey by Globoforce found that 38 percent are actively looking for a new job.

Quell the exodus by making business planning a purposeful activity and then invest in results. Collaborate regularly on best practices and make ongoing training a way of life.

5. Leadership Not Celebrating Wins

Most of us fondly remember a time when a team leader acknowledged our performance and made us feel great. Maybe it was your first achievement, or your fiftieth. But lousy leaders don’t celebrate their people’s wins.

This trait of effective leadership is one of the most overlooked steps you can take not only to improve morale but also to boost performance. A 2015 Harvard Business Review survey showed that 77 percent of workers would work harder with more recognition, and 39 percent feel underappreciated at work.

Help your team feel good about themselves. Boost their self-esteem and you’ll boost their numbers. Whether you introduce a “victory lane” tradition or offer prizes for milestones, showcase your team’s wins often and loudly.

Even if you’re struggling in one or more of these areas, you can learn how to be a great leader. Get started now by identifying the most urgent areas for improvement.

Related: Everything You Need to Know to Become a Great Leader

Todd Duncan is a sales entrepreneur and game-changing speaker with over 5 million students around the globe whom he has mentored and taught in life, time and sales mastery.

He is the author of 17 books, including The New York Times best-sellers Time Traps: Proven Strategies for Swamped Sales People and High Trust Selling: Make More Money in Less Time with Less Stress.

Todd has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Sydney Morning Herald, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Seattle Times, Entrepreneur magazine, SUCCESS magazine, FOX and CNN, amongst other media publications.