Let’s face it.
Leadership is struggling in our organizations and in our world.
How do we know that? Just look at employee engagement rates. 85% of employees are disengaged – and that’s ultimately because of leadership.
Look at how many leave their jobs because of their manager or boss :
Think about the experiences you’ve had with managers or bosses. What percentage of those were great leaders? Hopefully, you’ve had a lot, but if you are like many of us, you’ve experienced a lot of not-so-great ones as well.
In fact, some believe that 65-70% of managers are incompetent or poor leaders.
The list could go on.
So that begs the question? Why do we have so much bad leadership in our organizations – whether corporate, non-profit, educational, governmental, and so on? What’s causing it?
While there are likely numerous reasons that one could come up with, here are 7 key reasons why we have as much bad leadership as we do.
Table of Contents
1. Conventional Wisdom is wrong – or just not enough
One reason that leadership is not where it should be is that conventional wisdom doesn’t work – it’s wrong.
How do I know this?
Well, for one, if conventional wisdom worked, if common knowledge and common practices were effective, why do we still have so much poor leadership?
Truth is, much of the content on the blogosphere or posted on LinkedIn or other sites are not 100% correct.
It’s either completely wrong, partially wrong – it misses the point in a few areas or not enough – or it’s just very superficial.
There’s misinformation out there about what makes a good leader – such as, if you know your leadership style, that you will be a good leader.
Too many sources make leadership about you, your personality, or the way you like doing things. But that’s just not the case.
Leadership isn’t about your “style” or personality or your insecurities or ego – it’s about following good principles of leadership.
There are also a lot of cliches that, while being accurate in some ways, don’t hit the truth 100% (and can be rather superficial as well).
Level 1 leadership
With that (and this mixes with the second and third reason) is the fact that many of us get stuck on a level 1 level of leadership.
Let me explain.
Let’s imagine you are learning to play guitar. You bought a decent guitar and maybe took a couple of lessons or watched a few videos on YouTube.
You started to practice for 30 minutes or an hour every day, and you’ve learned some guitar chords. You can play the GCD combination beautifully.
You can even strum some of the songs you like off the radio and maybe sing sweet songs with your friends as you strum.
Do you know how to play guitar?
The answer is Yes… and No.
Yes, you can play the basics. You can play a few chords and strum along with some songs. But can you really play?
You are just a beginner. You’ve got a lot to learn. There are scales and so much more – and even when you learn scales, there are even more levels of learning that you can take your guitar playing.
It’s similar to leadership
Many of us are stuck in that level 1 level of leadership – that beginner level – and we don’t realize it. It doesn’t help that much of the content out there focuses on it.
We think we know what leadership is, we think we are amazing at it even – but, really, we are like that beginning guitar player. We’ve learned some, there are probably some things we might need to unlearn to progress, and we’ve got a lot to go.
There’s a whole other deeper level of leadership that we may not realize we are missing.
2. No one thinks they are a bad leader – it’s human nature
Another reason we struggle with poor leadership is that we don’t recognize when we aren’t good leaders. No one thinks they are a bad leader!
Think about the worst boss or manager you’ve ever had – did they think they were a bad leader? Did they come up to you and say, “You know what, I’m a terrible boss and leader.” Not Likely!
It’s human nature. We like to think well of ourselves. We rationalize our behaviors and actions. We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
We also overestimate how good we are at things.
For example, if you go into a room and ask who in the room is an above-average driver, the majority of people will usually raise their hands (which, of course, doesn’t work out statistically). We like to think well of ourselves.
It works the same with leadership.
Because we want to (and do) think well of ourselves, we often assume we are better leaders than we are. It can be easy to blame others or teammates or situations for poor performance or other issues rather than looking at ourselves – the leader.
It’s easy to rationalize and assume we are doing a great job – even when we aren’t.
Sometimes people think they know what good leadership is because they are a leader – and that’s not true either. And that leads us to reason #3.
Side note: Do know that it’s not necessarily bad if you are a “bad” leader. Leadership growth is a process. It takes time. It’s good to recognize you have a ways to go and work on it. It’s bad if you don’t recognize it or recognize it and do nothing about it.
3. Many have never seen what good leadership really looks like (bad leadership perpetuates itself)
Another reason is that many people have never seen what great leadership looks like. They experience not-so-great leadership, so when they have a mediocre or halfway decent leader, they think that leader is good (and they are – comparatively).
And, because of conventional wisdom and no one thinking they are a bad leader when they become a leader themselves, they follow what they’ve seen from others assuming that is the way leadership works.
And what happens then? Poor leadership perpetuates itself.
I think that is one reason poor leadership happens in many organizations, including in education. Teachers who become leaders model the leadership they’ve seen or been taught, and the not-so-great leadership continues to the next generation.
4. They have the wrong motive
Your motive matters.
The reason you become a leader (and stay a leader) is a major contributor to how effective you will be as a leader.
(Note: Patrick Lencioni covers this topic well in his book The Motive)
There are two overall arching reasons: selfishness, and service.
Some pursue leadership positions because they feel like they’ve earned it. It and all its pay, perks, authority, and recognition – they deserve it.
Similarly, some do it just for the perks. They want to be looked at with respect. They want the power to make the final decision. They want a special parking spot and a spacious office.
That’s what it’s about.
The other main reason is service. You became a leader to serve the organization and your team to help them reach their mission.
You aren’t about you looking good or getting special perks. You are there to do the hard work of a leader and serve.
The problem with the first reason is that when you pursue the position as a reward or perk, then you won’t do the hard and necessary work that is required of you (and your whole mentality of leadership is wrong – which will likely affect everything you do). You will likely avoid the areas that are unpleasant for you to do.
Because of that, your team, and organization, will suffer.
5. They were never trained (or trained well)
Part of the problem (that is compounded by the above reasons) is that sometimes when someone is raised to a management/leadership position, they aren’t trained (or trained well).
How can you expect to have good leadership when you don’t train your people?
But it happens way too often.
People can’t know how to be a good leader unless they are taught. If they aren’t taught, they resort to conventional wisdom (#1), what they’ve seen from their previous bosses (#3), and in all of that, they likely think they are being a great leader (#2).
Sometimes they are trained, but they aren’t trained well. If those above aren’t great leaders, they aren’t going to train the new leader to be great leaders. And when they are trained, often it’s with #1 conventional wisdom.
In one educational organization, I was part of, a coworker of mine was going through their leadership program for teachers wanting to become assistant principals. From talking to her (and from overhearing conversations of another), it seemed that the leadership program focused mostly on the duties they would have to do as an assistant principal (which is important – you can get in major trouble for not doing some of it right), but it lacked greatly on actual leadership training.
When I asked what they taught about leadership, she said it was mostly about strengths.
That’s unfortunate. Because, while knowing your strengths and weaknesses is important, leadership isn’t about your strengths or personality or style, it’s about good principles (once you follow the principles, sure, you can adjust your “style” according to your personality, but it’s the principles that matter first).
These kinds of situations happen a lot partially because of #6:
6. They don’t understand the importance of leadership
If those in key leadership positions truly understood the importance of leadership (and understood what great leadership is), then they would put much more emphasis on leadership training and on hiring great leaders.
If key leaders really understood that the success of any organization rises and falls based on leadership, they would make sure they were the best leaders they could be and also make sure they hired and trained the best leaders as well.
But, another reason we end up with poor leaders at the top and throughout an organization is #7:
7. “Leaders” are hired into leadership positions for the wrong reasons
Part of it is that we focus on the wrong qualities. For example, we may think someone who knows how to “take charge” is a great leader. Many think charisma makes a great leader (Jim Collins has shown that to not be true (also, check out his book Good to Great).
We may hire someone because of their appearance – they look good. They look like a great leader – but that doesn’t make a great leader.
We also hire for other wrong reasons, such as education. We may think an MBA or doctorate equals good leadership (or at least that’s the focus for hiring – going back to #6). Whether in education or corporate, having a high education degree doesn’t mean you know leadership or will be a great leader – it just means you maybe learned something and have a degree.
We may hire for their past performance as individual performer. Just because someone performed well in a job as an individual performer (such as a salesperson or blog writer) doesn’t mean they will do well managing and leading others doing similar jobs they once did. Those are two completely different jobs and different functions.
So, what do we do about it?
So, we know we have poor leadership in our organizations, and we know the main reasons why. What do we do about it?
Here are some suggestions:
First, realize in yourself that you may not be as good of a leader as you think you are.
Second, go past conventional wisdom and level 1 leadership. Dive deeper. Know that leadership is a process, it takes time, just like any other skill or set of skills you want to develop.
Third, let’s raise awareness about leadership and its importance. Share this article with others. Share what you learn with others as you dive deeper.
Fourth, make sure you have the right motive – that you are about serving, not about rewards or getting your just due.
Fifth, let’s make sure we hire as well as we can. Hire for leadership qualities, not for education or individual performance, or charisma.
Sixth, train! Train your people, not just once, but let it be a continuous process. Leadership is developed over time, not all at once.
Seventh, model what good leadership is yourselves. The more you show others what great leadership really looks like, the more you share with others how to be great leaders, to more great leaders we have.
And think about this, think about the impact leadership would have on our organizations as a whole if we raised the level of leadership. It would be incredible.
If you have any questions, suggestions, ideas, disagreements, or anything we missed, please let us know in the comments below.
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