Why Most People Make Bad Leaders and Managers

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Years ago I read a Wall Street Journal article that estimated about 80% of managers are unqualified. With life’s experience, I think they were wrong. I think the number is much higher. The unfortunate reality is that most people make bad leaders and managers.

I bet you’ve noticed the same thing. But why is that true?

Why Most People Make Bad Leaders and Managers
Why Most People Make Bad Leaders and Managers

I suppose it has to do with human nature. Most of us have enough trouble just managing our own affairs, let alone those of others. But we also have a tendency to overrate ourselves. When you add that delusion to the fact that many people in leadership roles won’t tolerate good advice, you get exactly what we get most of the time.

When I left the organizational world 10 years ago, I convinced myself that bad leadership was in my past.

I was wrong. It’s all around us.

A Recent Example of Bad Leadership

Last Thursday we got our first major snowstorm. But just before it hit, we got an email from the management company of our condo informing us we were no longer able to park on an access road on the side of the neighborhood during snow cleanups.

Now our development has very limited additional parking as it is. There are just 12 guest parking spaces for the 40 units in the neighborhood. Simple math tells you that as many as 80 vehicles are not going to be able to squeeze into a guest parking area designed for 12. And parking on the street is illegal and subject to towing.

I responded to the management company email, and followed that up with a phone call to our HOA president. My simple question: If we’re not allowed to park where we have been for the past several years, exactly where do we park?

Now I know I’m biased, but I think that was a perfectly reasonable question. However, neither the property manager nor the HOA president offered anything other than restating the parking restrictions.

Here’s my fundamental objection: While acknowledging that there may be rules we have to obey, if you’re going to tell us what we can’t do, you also need to suggest reasonable alternatives.

The leadership in our little beehive neighborhood didn’t think that was a reasonable request.

The all too common moral of this story: Leaders see their job as telling us what we can’t do or what we must do (that we ordinarily wouldn’t), but sense no need to provide reasonable alternatives.

I’ve seen this same routine played out in companies and government. People in authority savor power, but hold themselves responsible for nothing.

Most People Mistake Leadership for Dictatorship

After witnessing similar scenarios playing out in various organizations, I’m convinced the average person equates leadership with dictatorship.

A true leader is one who leads people to a better place. That might be better running the government, making people more successful in their jobs, and certainly in the case of an HOA, representing and recommending the best interests of the residents.

Instead, when people get into positions of authority, the power goes to their heads.

And as we all know…

…Power Corrupts

History has produced a depressing number of power obsessed leaders, from Nero and Caligula to Hitler and Stalin, who used their authority to annihilate millions of people.

While we like to think of these people as anomalies, that’s hardly the case. Giving people authority over others is bad enough. But when they have absolute power, as in power over life and death, death is a common outcome. Unchecked by either a moral compass or any meaningful legal constraints, their primitive instincts take over and they declare war on all enemies, real and (mostly) imagined.

Managers and politicians may not be killing people, but they often engage in either mismanaging, complicating work flows, and firing or otherwise financially impairing a lot of people.

Part of what makes leaders and managers so bad is pure paranoia. Once in a position of authority, the obsession to retain that position takes over. That creates a combination of two typical outcomes:

  1. The leader is on constant alert for challenges from the ranks.
  2. The leader is hesitant to implement positive change out of fear of failure and demotion.

The end result is a continuation of the status quo, with periodic beat-downs and purges of the rank and file. In the end, maintaining a dysfunctional system is deemed the safer strategy.

In this way, innovation from the leadership ranks is highly overrated.

The Wrong People Usually End up in Leadership Roles

Perhaps it isn’t that most people make bad leaders and managers, but rather that the wrong people usually ascend to the top.

This is a valid observation. Some people aspire to move up in the ranks. Others are content to do a good job, and hope to be left alone to do it.

The problem is those who aspire to positions of power are often not particularly good at what they do. Attaining a position of rank becomes an important self-validation. Eventually, that person may achieve a sufficient level of authority that actual ability becomes irrelevant. As well, most will assume he or she rose up through the ranks based on ability. But it may be that that person’s highest and best ability is being able to navigate upward in the power structure.

That may be good for the person who aspires to power, but it’s almost never good for those under his authority.

Doug Casey gives what I think is an outstanding personality profile of politicians. He describes what motivates them, and why they behave in ways that are contrary to both their constituents and their campaign promises. He asserts that most people in politics are sociopaths by nature. His argument is persuasive, and goes a long way toward explaining both the current level of political conflict, and the inability of the political system to solve even our simplest problems.

Based on personal experience, I think homeowner’s association boards attract similar personality types. But it may be true of corporate leadership as well. The people who aspire to leadership seem to be wired differently from the rest of us. And in most cases, that wiring doesn’t produce positive results.

Servant Leadership: The Better Way

There is a better way to be a leader or manager, but most people in those positions simply won’t go there. The Bible – increasingly one of the most widely ignored books in the 21st Century – gives us that better way. Jesus referred to it as servant leadership, and even demonstrated it to his disciples by washing their feet (John 17).

Can you imagine any leaders or managers doing that today?

He healed the sick and washed the feet of his disciples to demonstrate to his followers the real meaning of leadership.

Direct Teachings

He also told them the following:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25 – 28)

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Matthew 23:2 – 8)

Notice the two versus in the second quote that I highlighted. The first is a perfect description of typical human leadership. The second requires that leaders display humility, and recognize their equality with those they lead (hence the use of “brothers”).

The Real Job of a Leader and Managers

Maybe I’m just not that smart, but I think the real job of a leader or manager in any capacity is to empower those who are under his authority.

A true leader is one who knows how to make best use of resources, particularly people. She should layout the goals of the organization, then do everything possible to help those under her authority achieve those goals.

Not only will that make the achievement of organizational goals more doable, but the sense of empowerment is bound to generate loyalty among the rank and file. Ruling by threats and punishment achieves the opposite.

A recent article in Forbes described five motivations: power, achievement, affiliation, security and adventure. I remember studying something similar in a college management course.

But it’s clear those with a strong power motivation are going to be more drawn to leadership and management. That may go a long way toward explaining why most people make bad leaders and managers. If an obsession with power is a prerequisite, the end result will be predictable.

Have you seen similar results with leaders and managers? Or do you see the situation in a different way?

( Photo by PhotoBobil )

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9 Responses to Why Most People Make Bad Leaders and Managers

  1. I could literally write a book about the number of poor managers I have worked under. I could also write a book about two of the best I’ve even known.

    The worst…my absolute most horrific experiences have been with female managers. Jealousy is so counterproductive to motivating employees, especially other women. Here we go! Let’s call her Hilda. I was her administrative assistant. She was so full of herself, had minimal skills, a degree from a high dollar university, and spent her time flirting with every man that walked through the door. We worked in an industry that was predominantly male. Hilda had the assistant manager fire a female employee for a very lame reason. That woman would never fail to walk into my office and ask if she could do something to help me during her down time. She performed those tasks with a smile, a great attitude, and thanked me for giving her something to do besides sit around and wait. Hilda was off work due to an illness with her son the day this young woman was fired. This woman was also a single mother and part of the reason she was fired was because she had taken off work to have surgery on her son’s ears. Hilda had a double standard to say the least. When the young woman walked into my office sobbing her eyes out, it tore my heart apart. As she was driving home, I called my former employer to see if he was hiring. His office was very near this newly-fired employee’s home. I gave him a quick ‘resume’ on her and he said call her and see if she can be in my office at 3:00pm today. I called her cell and told her to go home, take a shower, wash her face, put on new make-up, put her old smile back on her face and be in his office at 3:00. She went further into shock. He hired her on the spot and she went to work for him the next day with a higher level of pay than she had been making after eight years with the company that fired her. Plus, her commute to work was less than two miles each way not the sixty miles round trip she had been driving. When he called and said he hired her my heart was overjoyed. When Hilda got word that I had assisted in this fired employee becoming a new employee at higher pay and closer to home she was livid! She ripped me to shreds. It was not phased. I knew I had done the right thing. She told me how I was going to live to regret what I’d done and that woman was not going to be worth anything to that company, blah blah blah. I doubt she knows that woman worked for that company until it was sold sixteen years later and was promoted many times! In addition, her car had some problems and her new boss asked how much it cost to fix it. She had worked there a very short time before she opened her Christmas bonus to find the exact amount of her car repair. She called me crying. Did I mention her new boss was Jewish?

    My next nightmare was another jealous woman that was a sales manager. Let’s call her Wendy. No matter what I said or did she gave me the stink eye. Customers loved having me handle their requests and often times I went the extra mile for them. Wendy hired me during the first interview telling me she knew when she had the right person and even though she wasn’t supposed to hire on the first interview she was going to make an exception with me. Wendy set up two sales contests that lasted two months. I won both of them. The contest ended and not one word of who won was mentioned. That was fine with me. I didn’t need the recognition but I did want the cash prizes that were offered. 2 months passed and one day Wendy’s assistant quietly walks up and hands me an envelope and says, “I’m supposed to give you this.” A few weeks later Wendy calls me into a private meeting to tell me she has cancelled my vacation (that I requested six months earlier)and that the company would never have another sales contest because I sold too much and demotivated her sales team. I reminded her she hired me with forty years of sales experience. Shortly thereafter, she had the HR director fire me with no reason for the termination. Other sales reps contacted me later and said they all knew I was fired because Wendy was so jealous of me she couldn’t see straight.

    These are small examples why I’ve heard professional woman say they would rather work with 10,000 men than two women. I agree.

    The boss I talked about earlier was incredible to work with. He was young, full of energy, very compassionate towards the trials and tribulations of every employee and was always stepping up to buy somebody a car, help pay their rent, you name it, he wanted happy employees. I never needed any of that type of help but I needed the freedom to do the job my own way. He was willing to let me do that as long as my performance did not suffer. It actually improved greatly…so much so he changed to my style for every sales rep. He owned a franchise and the corporate office put on a big sales awards convention each year. He knew I had the talent to win and every day he got me pumped up and showed me the sales reports for our region. I ended up winning second place and being the first woman in a six state region to place in the top ten. My boss was so happy for me he could hardly stand it. My prize was a Rolex watch. He knew I was not excited about that watch so he privately asked me if I liked it? I told him I thought it looked too masculine for me. He was not going to have me unhappy so he told me to go pick out the watch I wanted. I did. He paid for it and to this day I still wear that same watch…28 years later. After that, he would always ask me what was on my dream list. Then one day he would tell me to go buy the purse or whatever it was and bring him the receipt. He called me his ATM machine because I sold so much. Not one day went by that he did not thank me for my hard work and tell me how much he appreciated me. And what did that do to me? Made me want to work that much harder. Everybody in that sales office loved working for him. He sold that company and it’s the only time in my life I’ve cried over losing a job. Today, we’re still friends. He’s a multi-millionaire that has owned several businesses and still treating his employees with respect and appreciation. It pays to not be a jerk and to manage people with appreciation.

    The master of managing and motivating people was my dad. His philosophy was “there is no company without the employees.” He also believed, “you pay the most, hire only the cream of the crop, and your business will take care of itself.” And one more, “Cheap help is the most expensive help you can hire.” He was a strong believer in quality in everything. The same guys worked for him for almost forty years before he died. They carried him to his grave crying just like our family. He never worried about leaving on vacation or going to work later than normal. He knew those guys would come to work on time, do the perfectly, and treat his clients respectfully. I remember at his funeral the wife of one of the guys told me her husband thought he was going to get fired his first day on the job. He broke some equipment and felt like his first day was going to be his last. My dad had talked about that day and told me it didn’t matter about the things he did wrong because the things he did right were so outstanding and he liked him so much as a person. Firing him was never a consideration. They grew to be close friends and fishing buddies…more like brothers than boss and employee.

    When it comes to HOAs…Kevin you know I could write volumes of books. Let’s just say I have yet to meet a board member that wasn’t on a major power trip or has figured out how to turn the HOA into a cash cow for themselves. I think I’d be paying them a compliment to call them the scum of the earth.

  2. Hi Nila – Yes, I’m VERY familiar with your thoughts on HOA board members. But thanks for sharing those boss stories, both good and bad. I’ve had other women tell me they don’t want to work for female bosses, and I wonder if it’s the rivalry/jealousy thing. I’ve had both good and bad female bosses. One I worked for for two years, and she was outstanding. Another I worked with for maybe 8 months. I was the most productive person in my department, which put me in a position to help a lot of people in other departments. The company started an employee of the month program (no money, just recognition). I won the first award issued, then I think the third. It was done by employee votes. I’m told I won it like four times in six months, but another manager told me my boss over-rided two of them. Not because of any “share the wealth” thinking, but specifically because she didn’t want me to win it. She saw me as a counter influence. The other manager also told me my boss seethed every time I won. Ultimately, what made me leave was the way she treated other employees (putting them in the doghouse and forcing them to leave). I saw the handwriting on the wall, and also didn’t want to be a part of it, even if I could survive it.

    Why a large company lets a manager like that get away with that kind of crap is beyond me. To me it smacks of total corruption. It’s not even like she tried to hide it. You could have built a strong company with the people she ran off. And from what I heard later, only the worst performers in the company stayed.

  3. Some thoughts . . .

    1. In my experience, “leadership” and “management” are both conflated and oversold. (Nowhere have I seen the overselling more than in the military, of which I’ve been a part.) In my view, management can be taught and, at least at a sort of foreman level, can be done adequately by someone of average intelligence and certainly diligence. However, not everyone is suited to this, and it’s sometimes the case that someone is promoted into the position who’s far too young, and who likely has never learned to be a follower and who has the wisdom to both manage down and manage up.

    With “leadership,” this is, to me, more of an emergent phenomenon. This can’t be taught, only certain parts of the whole can be learned and demonstrated. A leader emerges from a cast of characters who might fit the bill, but the leader is also appointed by the followers. That leader could be intelligent and competent and wise. He or she could also be incompetent and bumbling. Or, even worse, he or she could be evil. (Remember Hitler?) Still, that evil person could be an effective leader.

    Bottom line . . . never conflate the two. “Leadership” programs often turn out to be management programs. And, not everyone is cut out to be a leader.

    2. Remember the Peter Principle, where everyone is eventually promoted to their own level of incompetence. In most cases, especially in a corporate setting, people are promoted based on how many slots are open at the higher level, and how well of a conformist the person being promoted is, as well as how connected they are, which puts them at an advantage over the other schmoes who could be in his or her position. Some might make it only to middle management, while others rocket past and are in the director’s chair. Once there, then other can see how well that person operates at that level. The middle manager might stay there because that’s the level of his or her competence, while the director got there because of political favors and then winds up causing unmitigated disaster.

    In short, the smart person wouldn’t promote someone to a level far beyond what they’re capable of doing. Yet, this happens all the time, because the metrics are probably off and the person doing the promoting can’t see past those metrics, or his or her own affection for the person they’re promoting.

    3. Finally, with management in particular, it’s about making sure that things are on schedule and in compliance. That’s fine, but this isn’t a one-size-fits-all. With your HOA example, it’s clear that the members are both afraid of rocking the boat, sticking their necks out, and then making sure that nothing perturbs their own place in the grander scheme of things — even if the activity proposed might benefit all (or most) over the long term. People don’t think that long term, and are probably tightly wound, as in your example. A “strong leader,” therefore, will be ignored and undercut at every opportunity. Therefore, it’s largely a waste of time to deal with them.

  4. Hi Tim – If I’m interpreting your comments correctly, you’re at least loosely agreeing with my theory that promotions go to those who aspire to them, but who aren’t necessarily the best leaders or even managers. I’d also add that I think the term “synergy” is vastly overused and overworked. It’s more of a propaganda tool to keep the foot soldiers in line. But it may also be the root of the problem. Synergy can work well in a small group. But in large organizations, it often has the opposite effect. It’s where the 80/20 rule comes into play, where 20% do most of the work and generate most of the production, while the other 80% use the size of the group to take cover, and skate by. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen a lot of skaters move up the chain, and they rarely morph into good managers and leaders.

    But I do agree that leader and manager are not the same thing. Or maybe closer to the point, most managers aren’t empowered to be leaders, but to simply manage the process they’re charged with. Fundamentally however, that’s the precise construct that creates the fear of innovation.

    There was a hilarious line in the movie Mall Cop that I think sums up the situation…”Why don’t you just punch in, punch out, and shut the F— up?” as a recommendation from a coworker. It’s the admonishment to go along to get along that’s rampant in organizations. You may come into an organization (company, government, HOA, non-profit, school) excited and full of energy and ideas, but after a couple of years you’re just going with the flow. If you’re a manager, you expect those under your authority to do the same. Since suggestions of meaningful change are disruptive, they’re commonly ignored, as was the case with my HOA encounter.

    I’ve had similar experiences in employment situations. And sadly, I attended far too many meetings where marching orders were issued, rather than the exchange of ideas among a (theoretical) “team” – another overworked concept to keep the troops in line. In that kind of meeting, where feedback isn’t accepted, though it may be politely tolerated to give the veneer of participation, it would be a better use of time to simply issue the marching orders by email, rather than by assembly. But of course, it wouldn’t be a true human organization without the obligatory dog-and-pony show designed to telegraph the myth that the underlings actually matter.

    Am I a cynical SOB or what???

  5. I hear you, Tim, I was employed for fourteen years in one of the largest corporations in the world. Over those years I saw some interesting promotions into management. First, it was the tough fighting union reps. One day they were all about tearing the organization and the managers to shreds and the next day they had a new desk or office and they were all rah rah for the company. I also experienced a program the company devised where they hired people right of out college with zero experience in the industry or management and made them instant managers. I will never forget overhearing one of those ‘managers’ say to an employee, “I do not need to know how to do the job, I just need to tell you to do it!” Needless to say, whenever the work group heard one of these college graduates was about to arrive the eyes were rolling. I do not recall any of those people being successful managers.

    I was reflecting on my past after I wrote some comments above. I forgot to mention a woman in management that became so overwhelmed she was lost in the forest and could not see daylight. A judge ordered the company to divest. The employees were separated into new companies by seniority not skills. My sales group ended up being comprised of younger people with less than eight years with the company for the most part. Many of these people despised talking to customers and trying to close sales. We had mandatory hours of Monday thru Saturday from 7am to 7pm. While the overtime made for nice paychecks our human bodies were not able to maintain stamina for months after months of those long hours. Not to mention with all the changes we had customers on hold for over eight hours waiting to talk to us and most were not too happy. During this nightmare, I assessed the situation and asked the manager if she was open to ideas. She welcomed me into her office with open arms and ears. We put the plan in place and everybody was so much happier. Sales were being done by skilled reps and the other staff was doing the administrative and extensive paperwork for us which kept them from having to answer callers. The manager was so impressed (and relieved) she submitted details to the corporate executives (unbeknownst to me)and they flew to town and presented me with the highest award an employee could be awarded in their career with the company. I was shocked to say the least. The excitement quickly died when the Union stepped in and slapped the manager with a grievance over separating the sales department into sales reps and sales support reps. After that I threw in the towel and transferred within the corporation to a commission sales position. The best move I ever made while working there! Over the years I was approached about my interest in management. I was honest and told them I was not interested in management by intimidation and dealing with union reps on power trips. Today, Unions remind me very much of HOAs. I despise them both.

    It’s unfortunate when talented people cannot rise above the pond scum!

    There is a show on television where entrepreneurs seek financial support and guidance from successful business owners. I love watching hardworking and driven people be given a chance at success! So many people have talent but never find the door open for their success.

  6. “I do not need to know how to do the job, I just need to tell you to do it!” – that summarizes the whole point of the original article. There’s too much of that. It’s pure arrogance, and not only does it display gross incompetence, but it’s also demoralizing to the staff.

  7. You’ve got that right, Kevin!

    Her statement still sticks with me today. When I’ve held management positions I’ve done everything I could to learn the job functions of those on my team. I’ve always wanted to be sure I was not asking employees to do something impossible, too demanding, or too difficult. When employees said they would go the extra mile for me because I always made them feel appreciated, respected, and happy to come to work I felt I was doing something right. Never was I perfect but I tried my best to treat people the way I liked to be treated. We know that as the Golden Rule.

    Sadly, I’ve found when it comes to HOAs the evil spirit in board members has replaced the Golden Rule. As you know, many of them will assess fines to their neighbors for something they are doing themselves, but it’s being overlooked because they warm a seat on the board!

  8. I think it’s one of the motivators, but kickbacks, access to millions of dollars of other people’s money with nobody watching, knowledge of foreclosures that can easily be purchased before they go to the courthouse steps, free labor for construction projects in their personal units, self-dealing, and teams of attorneys to carry out their vindictive hatred towards their neighbors without spending a dime of their own money could very well be the biggest motivators.

    I’ve seen it all!

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