Lessons Learnt from Poor Leadership

One of the great wonders of the world in which we live is the diversity of the human race.

Different personalities, styles and ways of doing things add colour and spice to life. Being exposed to these differences supports us as we learn and grow on our own journeys.

This variety also means that, when it comes to work, there are many ways to lead a team.  One person’s way of doing things may be completely different to how others do it.

As long as the work gets done, that’s the main thing, right? Well, maybe not always the case if you want to build a sustainable, future-focussed business.

I’m sure we all agree that having a strong work ethic and managing the team to produce work of a high standard by the deadline is just one measure of a good leader.

Leadership takes many guises, yes. Yet not all leaders are born equal.

Natural Leaders

There are those who are natural leaders, with a gift to direct and support others. Such emotionally intelligent people inspire and empower those around them.

They are aware they may not always have the answers and are usually humble enough to admit this to their team, empowering them to seek solutions themselves.

These empathetic individuals are always willing to learn, grow and be better.

Of course, natural leaders are not the only ones who can lead, nor are they the only ones in leadership positions.

Technically Strong Leaders

As is very often the case in organisations, those technically strong may advance up the ladder quickly, often taking up the baton of leadership immaturely, without having had the necessary training or having had the time or experience needed to build up their soft skills.

They’ve been thrown in the deep end and often must learn as they go.

While learning on the job is great experience, competing work demands usually result in people management not being the top priority and so the team and development of its members suffer. 

Being technically strong is not enough in the long-term when it comes to leadership.

Toxic Leaders

Then there is the toxic leader, who may become this way from feeling out of their depth, or may simply just be a bully, willing to do what it takes to get ahead.

This type of leader can cause serious damage to the organisation, creating a house of cards foundation that does not support succession planning.

By abusing their authority, they make the work environment unduly stressful for team members, reducing productivity, lowering morale and even overshadowing their team members’ personal lives.

These toxic leaders damage individuals’ physical and mental health and play a large role in driving promising talent away.

6 Lessons from Bad Leadership Experiences

In this day and age of The Great Resignation, I thought it would be useful to share some lessons taken from the poor leadership I experienced over the years and look at how negative traits can be re-framed for the better for both individuals and organisations.

I’ve realised that so much of the negative impact caused by poor leaders can be avoided by implementing some simple measures.

Here are the top 6 points from my experience:

 1. Consistency is key

And so important for building trust in leadership.

There’s nothing more anxiety-inducing in the workplace than not knowing what kind of mood a person will be in on any given day and having to tread on eggshells, only to breathe a sigh of relief when the leader is smiling and happy when you had prepared for the worst. Maybe they’re not so bad after all, you think, feeling guilty for thinking badly of them or annoyed with yourself for giving them free rent in your head. Until the next time they’re aggressive, obnoxious or downright rude, maybe laughing at your way of doing things, heck, your way of being in front of other team members.

You experience feelings of shame when you realise how your day in and out of the workplace seems to be dependent on someone else, almost out of your control.

Corporate Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing, often caused by extreme inconsistency in the behaviour of leaders.

Not every leader has to be charming and charismatic all the time, again, we all operate differently.

When a leader is consistent, the team feels secure, and as a result will be more confident, proactive and productive.

Of course we all have bad days, but true professionalism means we remain calm and collected most of the time.

It’s one of the duties of a leader.

In battle, the leader must not lose their head if they want to guide their troops to safety. A doctor once said to me that the office work I did “was not life or death”. Well, it’s all a matter of perspective, really. The corporate world can feel like a battlefield sometimes when you’re in it and with the rise in mental illness, deaths by suicide and stress-related diseases no doubt greatly influenced by the working environment, it kinda is a matter of life and death. And it doesn’t have to be.

Yes, people are responsible for their own health and careers, but it’s incumbent on leaders to do what they can to protect their team. This starts with their behaviour and realising that they do not just have a duty to lead the team to deadlines, but also have a duty of care to their team’s well-being.

 2. Never underestimate the impact of words and gestures

We are all human beings at the end of the day.

When a person reaches a certain level in their career, it’s an achievement that commands respect- not permission to disrespect others.

As a role model, the choices a leader makes, though they may seem small, can have a massive effect on those who look up to them.

A leader might be having a difficult day and think nothing of breezing past the intern in the corridor, mouth open, ready to say hello, only for them to now hang their head in shame as the leader doesn’t even make eye contact with them. They now overthink their embarrassing moment, that the leader hasn’t even given a thought to. Contrast this with a leader who takes a moment to smile and nod as they walk past the intern, acknowledging them- what impact could this make on their day and their confidence going forward?

It was once said to me by a manager, “Charlotte, I think you’re too nice to your juniors…”.

Maybe it’s my Law background, but I always believe in “innocent until proven guilty”. I reflected on the feedback and thought it best not to create a problem where there was none.

A girl at school used to say, “it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice!”

That’s something which has stuck with me over the years- being nice doesn’t equate to being a walkover.

In my experience, being “nice” in the workplace means having mutual respect for all you encounter, clients and colleagues at all levels, which builds trust and strong working relationships. The work gets done… and there is a great working environment. That is a result!

As a leader, there are enough problems and challenges to face without creating more because of people’s perceptions, or because it’s the way things have always been done.

 3. Presence is the best present

I remember booking time in a manager’s diary to discuss the jobs I was working on. It seemed to be the habit that whenever I’d show up at their desk at the appointed time, prepared with my points, they would seem to do anything but be present with me- file their nails or drum them on the table as I spoke, respond to emails, answer calls. Talk about re-enacting a scene from The Devil Wears Prada! What should have taken five minutes often took fifteen.

As well as being inefficient, this behaviour can make the team member feel insignificant.

Being present not only boosts a junior’s confidence and morale; it also serves the leader- focusing on one thing at a time provides a moment of mindfulness and is good for brain health.

Taking a few brief moments to fully engage with an employee, looking them in the eye as they speak, makes them feel seen, heard and part of a team.

 4. Knowledge is something to be shared

Some leaders believe they have to know it all, or at least be seen to. As a result, they keep information to themselves.

Up and coming junior team members may be viewed as competition and a threat to their role, so to prevent them passing the leader out professionally, knowledge is held back.

While it might feel empowering to be seen as the source of knowledge, when information is drip-fed and on a “need to know basis” it stifles a team and the development of its members. Indeed, one person retaining all the know-how for themselves is a threat to the future of the organisation.

By involving the team at the outset of a project, informing them of the outcome, what’s expected, the work involved and sharing any new developments as they become aware of them, a leader provides on-the-job training that supports the team members in their learning as well as enabling them to becoming more autonomous. Sharing in this way fosters and encourages open communication, all the while reducing key-person risk to the organisation.

A leader doesn’t have to have all the answers to the questions, but providing the knowledge they do have encourages the team to seek and share information on the project themselves. In this way, any problems may be brought to light, supporting early resolution and likewise, opportunities may discovered and acted on.

Knowledge is power, as it’s said.

 5. Remember we’re all grown-ups here

Witnessing managers get red in the face and scold team members as though they were children who had misbehaved was shocking, to say the least.

A leader must take responsibility for their team and if a person’s performance is not up to standard, the first port of call should be to consider how better mentor the individual, instead of screaming at them.

As a junior staff member, I was on the receiving end of silent treatment when I had made mistakes at work- a manager refusing to make eye contact with me at the lunch table, with others pointing out to me that it was obvious that I was getting the cold shoulder.

Taking mistakes made by junior team members personally is obviously not appropriate in a professional environment and certainly not how a mature leader operates.

Before reacting when a team member disappoints, it’s a good idea to take a breath, reflect, schedule a meeting with the person (a mature two-way conversation, not a telling-off) and decide on the best performance improvement plan for the individual if needed.

6. Give feedback and encourage the seeking of feedback

I remember going months on a job without getting any feedback, good, bad or otherwise.

Not knowing how you’re doing means your career is just coasting along and can lead to a feeling of indifference. It also can create anxiety not knowing if you’re performing according to expectations or not.

As a leader, it’s vital to provide feedback to support the growth of those junior to you and also to assist team members in taking responsibility for their own careers by encouraging them to actively seek feedback on a regular basis. Doing this supports the team to feel confident, take charge and get clear on how they’re getting on in the workplace.

Celebrate the wins of team members, even little ones and encourage them to do the same for themselves!

The impact of simple positive changes

During my career, I have been blessed to work with excellent leaders. I have also learned a great deal from poor leadership experiences and for that, I am grateful.

Change isn’t always easy, but to promote healthier, happier workplaces and people…it’s essential.

The smallest gesture of kindness, a hello in the corridor, a smile, a moment to listen, a second to ask “how are you?” can make all the difference to team members, junior leaders… leaders of the future.

Imagine the ripple effect a simple tweak to a leadership style could make- on the leader themselves, on team cohesion and productivity, on individuals, those they interact with in the workplace… not to mention the positive impact it may have on their other relationships, enhancing the quality of life of those close to them and the greater community.

That is sustainability and stability.

That is making a real difference.

In the words of George Elliot:

What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?”.