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Leadership In The Trenches. After All The Off-Sites, Platitudes, Lunches & Tweets, What Do You Have?



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Let’s once again look at “leaders” and “leadership.” Let’s laugh and cry together. Let’s look at failed leaders and how they’re so incompetent, rich and delusional. I’ve seen so many of them in my career. So have you. Many of these horrible leaders are incredibly well-paid to just leave. But there’s purpose here. Bad-leader-identification-skills are necessary if you’re going to plan work-arounds for survival. So here are some clues for spotting the bad ones (as if you needed more help).

Leading with Titles

I’ve discussed this before, but there’s still so much to say.

How many “leaders” have you seen that exhibit no leadership qualities except their titles? Put another way, if they didn’t have their titles would they still be leaders? Without their titles, would they even be taken seriously? You know exactly what I’m talking about. Please don’t ask me to name names; I won’t ask you either.

I’ve traveled through lots of industries including start-ups, defense contracting, software, insurance, venture capital, R&D, healthcare, pharmaceuticals and academia. As a consultant, I’ve traveled the world. What have I learned? What separates leaders from everyone else is their title, not their capabilities. In fact, I could easily point to untitled professionals in the organizations where I sat (or consulted) where far more talented professionals sat on the bench than the ones who sat in the big office with the impressive title. The important question, of course, is how did these leaders get their titles? Which “leaders” anointed them – and not the more qualified ones on the sidelines? Surprise, surprise: bad leaders anoint bad leaders, and so it goes. When they’re really bad, they get fired, and then everyone talks about how bad they were, how they should never have been hired in the first place, and hope the next leader is better than the fool that sat in the big office – until the new leaders turn out to be worse than the old ones. Accountability for bad leader selection is impossible to find, at least in my experience. I’ve seldom if ever heard, “yeah, my bad,” as admissions of guilt.

One of the phenomenon I’ve repeatedly observed is the mismatching of capabilities with requirements. Many leaders are hired because they have things in common with members of the search team, sell emotional connections or convince people they will grow into the title – not because their experience clearly qualifies them for the job. Sometimes they’re hired because they pose no threat to existing leadership, which, by definition, makes them lesser candidates. Mismatching – along with “friendship” – is perhaps the best explanation for bad leadership. Leaders are hired because of “features” that often have nothing to do with leadership requirements. Often the “heir apparent” is designated well in advance. How does that practice work? While everyone knows who the next leader will be, why are there so few challenges to the heirs who are – as Texans used to say – “all hat, no cattle.”

Another phenomenon is how quickly everyone adapts to bad leaders – not to their incompetence — but to the trappings of their titles. Instead of calling them out for their incompetence, which is almost immediately discovered, they search creatively for ways to serve their own vested interests. Truth-talking is extremely rare. Work-arounds are everywhere. Are there geniuses of dysfunctional playgrounds? You bet there are.


Perhaps the strongest quality of bad leaders is their ability to delude themselves about their capabilities. I’ve been told by leadership coaches and psychologists that a little self-delusion is actually a necessary leadership quality, as long as it doesn’t suffocate all of the other qualities. I’ve known many leaders who really believe they’re good at their jobs – as products fail, talent leaves and quiet-quilting becomes the preferred survival strategy among their employees. The amount of disdain for these leaders is incredible. Leader-mocking is a favorite pastime. But the leaders refuse to look in the mirror, and no one has the heart (or professionalism) – usually for financial reasons – to tell them they’re horrible leaders and it’s time to leave. Leadership coups are few and far between. Even interventions are rare – as the ship sinks. Boards of Directors? Fiduciary responsibleness are muddled by lawyers and stock options.


Many of the leaders I’ve known have spent more time hiding than leading. They could punt for any NFL team in the league. They’re incapable of making hard decisions, which by definition makes them bad leaders. They’re live in Hopeville, where they want problems to just disappear. I‘ve known leaders who act as though problems don’t even exist when everyone around them sees a house on fire. One of the metrics I use to assess leaders is their ability to shirk their leadership responsibilities. Some of them have perfected shirking in unimaginable ways. They’re almost invisible — which is what they want to be.


Many of the leaders I’ve known know very little about the technology that powers their companies or the products and services they sell. This is exasperating. How in the world can they lead a company that, for example, sells technology products or services when their knowledge of technology is so shallow? I could tell you stories about technology venture capitalists who knew virtually nothing about the investments they made. When I suggested they acquire some “technology awareness,” they almost always said, “thanks, but no thanks.” (BTW, these funds lost money – though it didn’t prevent “His/Her Shallowness” from raising additional funds.)

Style Versus Substance

I know at least ten leaders who lead with their smiles. Make no mistake, the smiles are wonderful. But they’re empty suits. Many of them are articulate, superb golfers and the life of the parties they always attend. They tell jokes. They’re charming. It works for them. They have a set of techniques that endears them to their teams – and enables their survival. Classic style versus substance. But it’s always temporary. When the team realizes that off-sites, platitudes, lunches and tweets don’t define leadership, the smiles turn downward. Smiles can take them only so far (though, due to some ugly predispositions of the electorate, sometimes the rule doesn’t apply to politicians). Have you ever wondered why salespersons usually only last 2-3 years? Style versus substance.

Wrong Influencers

Bad leaders often listen to the wrong people. All leaders should know the strengths and weaknesses of their team members. They should also know how each member of their team is perceived by the larger population in their company. We’ve all seen all-hands-meetings where exactly the wrong people stand alongside the boss, where employees just shake their heads — and credibility instantly dies. This, of course, is an extension of self-delusion, but rather than worry about the downside, there’s often an unexploited upside where smart professionals are never asked what they think or what they would do. Instead the same cronies have the ear of the boss — the same cronies who have failed to solve persistent problems. If you find yourself in a ditch, ask hard questions about how you got there. Inspect the process that got you into the ditch and who you turned to for advice. Be as objective as you can here, if you can be objective at all (since, after all, you gave the cronies their seats at the table).


Some leaders are just plain incompetent: “they lack the qualities needed for effective action (and are) unable to function properly.” Said a little differently, incompetent leaders just don’t what to do, don’t know how to solve problems, don’t know how to interact with humans to solve problems, run from tough problems, have no idea about precedents or best practices, or know much of anything that qualifies them for the title they hold. How many times have you been “stunned,” “shocked” and “amazed” at how ineffective the leaders in your world have been? Maybe they’re just incompetent.

Cash Exits

I know leaders who were given millions (and millions) of dollars to just go away. So do you. It’s amazing that this tried-and-true business practice never gets challenged. If a leader fails – and in the process damages the organization they were leading – why are they so handsomely rewarded to just go away? All I can determine is that there are lawyers in the hallway just waiting for the leaders to get what they believe they deserve, or just matter-of-factly honor payoff precedents. These lawyers exist to convince everyone that justice doesn’t apply to failure. We’re talking tens and sometimes even hundreds of millions of dollars here. I always assumed that the lawyers who negotiate guaranteed contracts for athletes are hard at work in the corporate trenches too.

The Good Ones

There are good leaders. I’ve seen them. I’ve worked for them. I like to think I’ve occasionally been one (though I’m probably deluding myself). Good leadership cannot be found in the pages of books, in articles or tweeted platitudes written by leaders who’ve never led anything, leaders who’ve failed their leadership duties, or leaders who now sell “lessons learned” to publishers, TED event planners, corporate boards and speaker’s bureaus.

Really good leaders seize context and the situational features of the challenges before them. This means that good “leaders” are all only temporary, that “leadership” does not travel well and isn’t suited to calm, predictable times. That kind of leadership can be phoned in. No, good leaders adapt to — and anticipate — the problems in their face. They listen and objectively – regardless of friendships or the empty promises they’ve made – lead, despite the challenges they face. They show up. They negotiate. They solve. If leaders cannot perform these basic tasks they should just take the money and run — though many of them just stay because of the money — and then take the money and run!

This is leadership in the trenches after all of the off-sites, platitudes, lunches, coaching, dinners, disappearing acts, self-delusion and tweets. But it really can be better, right? Yes. At least that’s what I read in one of the 57,000 books on leadership that Amazon sells. I just wish I could remember the title of that damn book.


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