6 Ways to Spot a Bad Leader in the Wild

Unfortunately, mediocre managers are everywhere—if you know where to look.

By Robert Hogan, Ph.D., and Ryne Sherman, Ph.D.

Leadership is one of the most intensively studied topics in the behavioral sciences—as it should be.

When institutions have good leaders, the subordinates, employees, and staff members are engaged, and the organizations prosper and thrive. When bad leaders are in place, however, the opposite results occur.

This is true for businesses, hospitals, churches, schools, athletic teams, charitable organizations, armies, and navies. It’s true for virtually all organized collective activities.  

But even though the importance of leadership is widely understood, research also shows that good leadership is an exception, and bad leadership is the rule.

For example, 80 percent of the U.S. workforce cries at work, largely due to the stress their bosses cause; 65 percent of U.S. workers say they would take a pay cut if someone would fire their boss; 52 percent of U.K. workers say their boss is the main cause of dissatisfaction in their lives; and an astonishing 12 percent say they actively fantasize about killing their boss.

This raises two important questions. First, why are there so many bad leaders working in organizations? And second, how can the people responsible for managing organizations spot those bad leaders?

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An important clue regarding the answer to the first question comes from some landmark research by Fred Luthans and colleagues, who studied a large group of managers from several organizations for four years. They gathered data on each manager (interviews, assessment data, behavioral observations) to be used to predict their performance. At the end of four years, they analyzed the performance data and found the high performers fell neatly into two groups. 

Luthans and colleagues characterized the first group, called emergent leaders, by visibility: they received rapid promotions, significant pay raises, and high-profile job assignments—they were seen as high potentials. The second group, called effective leaders, were characterized by the fact that their teams performed at a high level. The two groups only overlapped by about 10 percent.

The key question concerns how they spent their time. The emergent leaders spent their time on the phone and in meetings doing politics—i.e., networking. The effective leaders spent their time working with their teams. The lesson is clear: Organizations tend to value and promote people who are good at politics and ignore the good leaders who, although less talented politically, work to make their teams effective and productive. 

Now that we know how we get so many bad leaders in the first place, here’s the more important question: How do we spot them?

Before we answer, we first need to define leadership. Most research defines leadership in terms of the senior people in an organization. Based on Luthans’ research, we disagree with this definition. People rise to the tops of organizations based on politics and only sometimes based on actual performance as a leader.

We define leadership in terms of the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams. Good leaders build effective teams; bad leaders are unable to build teams and may even destroy them. This means we should look to the team members to understand bad leadership.

The easiest way to identify bad leaders is to ask the staff, because they always know who the good and bad managers are. Managers have reputations, and the staff circulate these reputations so they’ll know how to behave vis a vis the various managers. It’s a mistake to ask senior managers to identify their good junior leaders because, once again, senior managers know who they like, but they often don’t know who is doing a good job for them.

Instead, we should look through their reputations. The most important component of managers’ reputations is the degree to which the staff think they can be trusted. Trust is the essential component of any relationship. If you don’t trust your spouse, the marriage is over; if you don’t trust your business partner, the business is doomed. Staff ratings of how much they trust their managers are a proxy for business unit or team performance.

Six distinct patterns of behavior create trust and define the reputations of good managers and leaders. These critical behavior patterns concern integrity, competence, judgment, vision, humility, and persistence.

Bad Leader Behavior #1: Lack of Integrity

Managers with integrity keep their word, avoid playing favorites, admit mistakes, treat people with respect, and so on. People will only commit to organizations that treat them fairly.

Staff constantly monitor their managers’ behavior for signs of duplicity and, sadly, they often find evidence of low integrity. When confronted with signs of unfair treatment, the staff will withdraw their commitment. 

Bad Leader Behavior #2: Incompetence

Do managers know what they’re talking about? Can they solve the problems brought to them by their staff? Do they know when subordinates are struggling? And will they know how to help?

This problem is much bigger than many people realize, and it’s exacerbated by the cult of the MBA. Reflecting French structuralist theory, many people think there’s a body of formal knowledge that applies to all business, and if one masters this formal knowledge, one can be productive in any business without understanding it at the level of the shop floor. However, in order to be perceived as competent, managers must understand the business in detail.

A lack of basic understanding is why managers who are brought in from the outside often fail. Our point isn’t that managers coming from outside the organization always fail, but rather, that managers who come from the outside need to know the business before making decisions.

In many modern businesses, that learning process can easily take a year or more. Managers interested only in self-promotion won’t have the patience for or commitment to this learning process. 

Bad Leader Behavior #3: Poor Judgment

Can managers make sound and defensible decisions quickly, based on incomplete data and changing conditions? Or, conversely, can they make sound decisions when faced with a flood of data and conflicting opinions? And can they change direction when the data indicate their decision was wrong?

Perceptions of a leader’s judgment powerfully impact subordinates’ level of trust. The success of any venture depends on the sum of the decisions made during that venture. Thus, making good decisions in a timely fashion and learning from past mistakes in order to make better decisions in the future is essential.

If followers think their leaders have bad judgment, they’ll quit or rebel. It’s estimated that, in the Vietnam War, over 5,000 junior officers in the U.S. Army were killed by their own soldiers because they thought the officers would get them killed. This is, of course, something the U. S. military would prefer not to discuss. Staff closely monitor the decision-making of their leaders and respond accordingly. 

Bad Leader Behavior #4: Blurry Vision

Can managers provide a persuasive rationale for what the group is doing? People want to serve worthwhile causes and resent working on vanity projects or make-work. U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan often found themselves defending military positions that, to them, made no sense.

In response to the complaint that “This assignment sucks,” talented leaders would respond, “Embrace the suck,” meaning their larger purpose was duty and service to their country, something to which patriots always respond. However, employees (patriots) are more likely to respond positively to leaders who can articulate the higher purpose.

Bad Leader Behavior #5: Narcissism

This is the opposite of humility, and any population of modern CEOs will contain a surprising number of narcissists. Given enough time, narcissistic CEOs ruin companies because they make bad decisions and refuse to change them.

Conversely, CEOs of high-performing companies tend to be humble: They don’t take themselves seriously, they admit their mistakes, they share credit for success, and they put the needs of their organizations ahead of their own.

The point is nicely captured by this saying, attributed to both President Harry Truman and basketball coach John Wooden: “It’s amazing how much can get accomplished if nobody cares who gets the credit.”

Narcissists take credit for success and no responsibility for failure. People are happy to work for a humble leader who shares success and will take responsibility for failure.

Bad Leader Behavior #6: Lack of Persistence

The final pattern of leader behavior associated with staff ratings of trust involves leading from the front and never giving up.

Some senior leaders, like Donald Trump, seem focused on the perks of their office (airplanes, chauffeured cars, private dining rooms, golfing vacations) and lead underperforming organizations. Other senior leaders, meanwhile, are focused on winning.

Consider Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, who were amazingly persistent in the face of brutal German military aggression, and led their countries through their darkest hours. Leaders are role models: Self-serving leaders send one kind of signal, while persistent leaders dedicated to winning send a different signal. 

These six patterns of behavior create staff engagement and characterize effective leadership in any organization. So how do we spot bad leaders?

On the one hand, bad leaders display a lack of integrity, poor understanding of business specifics, bad judgment, no vision, arrogance, and self absorption. On the other, if bad leaders are still employed, this means senior leadership is satisfied with their performance.

Consequently, the only way to identify bad leaders is to ask the staff about their leadership. The bosses of bad leaders usually don’t know how bad they are—but the subordinates always know.

Robert Hogan, Ph.D., is the founder and president of Hogan Assessments. He’s the first psychologist to determine the link between personality and organizational effectiveness, and today remains the leading authority on personality assessment and leadership.

Ryne A. Sherman, Ph.D., is the chief science officer of Hogan Assessments. Prior to joining Hogan, he was an associate professor in the department of psychology at Texas Tech University, where he researched the importance of individual differences, the psychological properties of situations, and developing tools for data analysis.