"You don't lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case." ~Ken Kesey
"To be able to lead others, a man must be willing to go forward alone." ~Harry Truman
We are faced with an epidemic of weak leadership in this day and age. Part of it is that leaders are rarely trained on leadership practices. Part of it is that leaders are overburdened with responsibilities which leads to some areas atrophying. And part of it is that we have taken few strides in organizations today to stem the tide of hiring the wrong person into a leadership position to begin with (for a variety of reasons).
What this has left us with is a workforce crying out for strong leadership. My hope through this article is that you’ll be able to get a better awareness of where your leader may be coming up short, but even more than that, I hope you’ll take a look at your own behavior and notice some areas where you may be demonstrating weak leadership and take to heart the recommendations for correcting them.
Safe decisions - Not surprisingly, weak leaders don’t stand up for their own opinions. They pander to public opinion, they manage the routine rather than lead the extraordinary, and they are more concerned about being right than achieving the right outcome. The funny/sad thing is that safe decisions become riskier and riskier as they accumulate.
What to do if this is you – Realize that as the leader of your department you have access to better information with which to make a decision than almost anyone. You are also charged with improving operations, not just maintaining the status quo. Both of these together mean that you should regularly be making changes in your operation and going “against the grain” of the current thinking and what is currently in place. Some will work out, some won’t, but you aren’t doing your job if you aren’t risking failure occasionally. Start small with a project exclusively for your department and an idea all your own. After this one select one slightly larger to implement. As you continue to make these decisions you will get more and more comfortable with your own ideas.
Makes others decide – Slightly different than “safe decisions” is actually deflecting leadership onto the team. Have you ever had a boss tell you to, “Just do what you think is best” or “Just handle it” when you came to them with a not so trivial question about something? That’s a leader who is ceding their control over the department to others, not for employee empowerment or employee development reasons, but because they are overburdened, don’t know the answer themselves, or are afraid of making a poor decision and getting blamed.
What to do if this is you – When your team members come to you for help, this is when strong leaders shine. This is an opportunity for engagement, trust building, and coaching and it needs to be a priority. Listen to their concerns and let them know what you’re thinking. Try at first to come up with a mutual decision, which can be the segue to making the decision for them once you’re more comfortable. If you are bold in your decision making while working with them, they will be bold in their own decision making which will over the long term reduce the questions you will see.
Doesn’t want feedback – A weak leader is generally so afraid of being wrong or being put on the spot where they would need to say “I don’t know” that they generally shut down feedback before it begins, or they claim to have knowledge that others don’t and request that the team member just trust them. These leaders also tend to always be in a hurry, ensuring that they don’t linger any longer than absolutely necessary so as to avoid the time to ask questions.
What to do if this is you – First of all, it’s OK not to know something as long as you’re able to find the answer. Questions are an essential part of your team understanding what you told them to do. If you don’t allow them time to ask questions, you’ll need to answer for mistakes later. So plan on answering questions every time you give any direction. You don’t need to plan an exorbitant amount of time, but a minute or two to answer a few questions should give your team the reassurance to move forward in the direction you intended.
Uses authority not respect – Much of a weak leader’s behavior comes from an inherent insecurity. Even if they have the capability to earn the respect of their team, they won’t feel like they are worthy of it and they will default to intimidation. This usually comes about with continual reminders that they are the boss and that everyone needs to follow their direction because they are the boss.
What to do if this is you – Utilizing authority is the worst form of motivation. Get in the habit of briefly explaining why you are making the decision you are.This gives your team a window into your thinking, helps them develop the same thought processes and ultimately leads to respect. Give the “why” as often as you can and you’ll find you need to use authority much less.
Doesn’t communicate – Leaving people in the dark is an exercise in control. If your team doesn’t have the information, then they can’t formulate their own opinions and they become completely reliant on you for direction. This comes about based on a need for control, but often because the weak leader is uncomfortable communicating in general (and wasn’t mentored in how to do it effectively).
What to do if this is you – This is the information age and people demand information of what is going on around them that effects them and their work environment. If you don’t communicate the information, then they will likely jump to conclusions and flat out guess to fill the void. For the leader who isn’t terribly comfortable communicating, a monthly team meeting or weekly “stand-up” is usually all it takes to field questions and convey what is going on.
Blames, doesn’t act – When a problem arises, a weak leader will go on the defensive first and try to find who to blame instead of acting to resolve the issue. Only when they are satisfied that they have a scapegoat will they move forward with action.
What to do if this is you – Flip your tendency and act to fix the issue right away. There is always time to find out the root cause of issues after they have been addressed. So even if you still feel the urge to blame, you can at least act like a strong leader at the start. Focus not on blame, but on cause when doing the analysis, and address the cause.
Doesn’t follow through – Meeting deadlines and goals that you set for yourself in front of employees are difficult because they always meet with resistance at some point. Weak leaders buckle in the face of this resistance, and it prevents them from doing the right thing and finishing what they said they would accomplish. While their projects from their boss get done on time, it’s the projects from peers and employees that get relegated to the “To Be Completed” pile.
What to do if this is you – First of all be careful what you promise. Practice saying “I will do my best” if you are unsure of whether something can be done or not. Next, where appropriate enlist the help of the person you are doing the follow through for. Anything worthwhile isn’t usually done easily, so know that you will naturally face resistance. Strong leaders push through that resistance to the finish line.
Waits in a group setting to express opinion – One of the easiest ways to spot the weak leader is in a group setting. Those who wait until everyone has spoken, then jump on the bandwagon of popular opinion or still don’t commit are likely weak. The other way this surfaces is that they wait, then simply reiterate or rephrase what was popularly said before.
What to do if this is you – Your opinion is valuable and required. You need to be able to assert your feedback to the group so that everyone has as much information as possible. Since you may have a natural fear of the criticism your thoughts may inspire, focus first on giving your opinion in the middle of the discussion. If there are six people, shoot to be the third or fourth to speak. This exercises that “assertiveness” muscle.
Avoids confrontation – Whether calling out a team member for falling short in behavior or results, or avoiding settling conflict between two employees, the weak leader can’t be found anywhere when tensions escalate in the workplace.
What to do if this is you – De-escalating conflict isn’t too difficult for a leader actually. All you need to do is change the venue and allow 10 or more seconds of time for the parties to think and it will be much more comfortable. The most common way to do this is to simply call both parties into your office, or a meeting room. This pause allows somewhat cooler heads to prevail and ease your discomfort at helping facilitate a mutual understanding.
Cries on the employee’s shoulders – Expressing your fears and concerns to peers or bosses is acceptable. Expressing all of these to an employee is breaching decorum. It isn’t that your team shouldn’t see you rightfully concerned, but when personal issues, fears and concerns are brought up it often diminishes the effectiveness of directives you make in the future by undermining their respect for you.
What to do if this is you – Leaders are human too, but I recommend finding another outlet. Whether that is taking a walk and thinking it through yourself, talking to a trusted peer, or venting to a friend or spouse.
Excuses – It takes a lot of guts to admit you are wrong. Not taking ownership for your failures is the opposite. Of course there is a reason for the shortfall or failure, but making excuses instead of planning actions to address it shows not only weakness, but immaturity in leadership.
What to do if this is you – Excuses are often founded in truth, but they don’t go the extra needed step. It’s this extra step that you should take. Go ahead and continue giving the excuse (for the time being) then immediately follow it with what you are going to do to address the issue. As you get practice with this, you can begin to leave out the excuse. And after some more practice, replace the excuse with “I’m sorry” and give your planned course of action.
Poor emotional control – It takes strength to deal with the pressures and frustrations of leadership. Weak leaders succumb to outbursts of anger, sadness, and hopelessness right in front of the team. Yes, even that “Titan of Industry” that you have exposure to. Giving in to too much emotionality is a sign of weakness. All leaders are human, but the strong ones balance the emotional and the logical at all times to keep focused on the results they desire and charting the course to get there.
What to do if this is you – There are often some common triggers that you have that set off the emotion. Identify each of these triggers. If you are aware of it ahead of time, you have a better likelihood of controlling it. And in cases where you feel that you can’t get ahead of it, that’s one of the only times I would recommend leaving the department, even if just for a couple of minutes. Better for the team to see that than have the negative repercussions of an outburst.
As mentioned in the introduction, people are desperate for strong leadership to lend them a layer of security and to develop their talents to the fullest. If you are able to develop some strength in your leadership you will be able to not only help yourself in your career, but will likely help your team as well.
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