Leaders are encouraged to develop their strengths and sharpen their skills to maximize their effectiveness. Many resources are available, including books, seminars, conferences and qualified executive coaches. A coach, of course, can address your specific needs, and customize an approach that perfectly fits your personality, circumstances and goals.
Most leaders understand that all their beliefs and behaviors are exposed. They put their character on display every day. Employees rightfully attribute the organization’s success or failure to how the top leader leads.
While focusing on strengths is very worthwhile and profitable, leaders can’t reach peak effectiveness without taking a hard look at their weaknesses. A leader’s prominence in the organization automatically designates their strengths as assets. Alternatively, their weaknesses can be considered liabilities, blocking the organization from reaching its potential.
Although not a fond exercise, some of the most significant personal growth can come from understanding what behavior is blocking collective success. The best leaders make the decision to understand their liabilities, many of which they never notice. Turning them around to become assets will be the most valuable undertaking of their professional careers.
The Impact of Leadership Liabilities
Many leaders don’t recognize their liabilities or the detrimental effects they have on their organization. Every leader has weaknesses of some kind. The wisest are willing to learn about them and undo the damage they cause. After all, if the company struggles, the employees struggle, and this eventually comes full circle to cause the leader to struggle.
For the most part, leadership liabilities have to do with personality rather than a lack of technical skills or knowledge. Knowledge can be acquired with relative ease. Leaders can also rely on the expertise of people around them to cover their technical skill shortcomings. However, leaders can’t look to others to compensate for their personality shortcomings. Only the leader can address these.
Even when other co-leaders bring effective assets to the organization, an ineffective leader with liabilities can undo them, as leadership experts Robert Anderson and William Adams explain in Scaling Leadership: Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most (Wiley, 2019). They put it succinctly by stating that “leaders with liabilities simply get in their own way.”
Some leaders observe disappointing results and reason that they just need to work harder. They press more or put in longer hours to compensate for a perceived deficiency. This is rarely the solution. In fact, with an ineffective style or disruptive personality, working harder can exacerbate the liabilities. More of a bad thing is generally a worse thing.
Leaders who bring character or personality liabilities to their organizations see a variety of debilitating results. Diminished productivity, morale, unity, loyalty and progress are just a few of the outcomes. Ultimately, the organization is unsuccessful, and so is its leader.
Anderson and Adams point to three primary self-centric tendencies that cause leadership liabilities: disliking people, devaluing people and having emotional deficiencies.
Leaders Who Dislike People
It may seem like a contradiction, but some leaders don’t like people. Although they technically need others in order to run a team, they behave in ways that indicate they have no need for them.
This proves to be a significant liability and it’s generally not difficult to spot.
Poor people skills are an indicator. Leaders who don’t treat people well signal their dislike for them. Common signs include not acknowledging others by initiating or returning a greeting, and being non-responsive to questions or comments. Adding arrogance or disrespect is a more blatant clue.
A leader’s liability is even more pronounced when they are critical of their employees, criticizing, condemning or insulting them. An argumentative character adds fuel to the fire, clearly displaying a dislike for people. This cuts peoples’ spirits and destroys their self-esteem. Morale and unity get crushed, sabotaging productivity and team effectiveness.
Anderson and Adams describe another way leaders display their dislike for people: being a poor team player. Unwilling to engage others, they rather work independently, keeping information to themselves. Withholding support may also be a way of avoiding contact, but it is a liability that handicaps the organization.
Pride plays a role in leaders who always believe they are right. The team’s position is not as important as that of the ego-driven leader who is never wrong. This throws up walls that block teamwork, and thus success. Employees have no tolerance for this kind of mindset and will express it with their feet.
A lack of follow-up is yet another way leaders reveal their dislike for people. This is often exhibited as a resistance to addressing difficult issues with employees: not wanting to hear their opinions or concerns. Not holding them accountable can be a way to avoid encounters. No one gets corrected, taught, instructed or challenged. This liability leads to disorganization and disruption. Rules and policies become meaningless and the company crumbles under its mismanagement.
When People are Devalued
A surprising number of workers claim that their supervisors don’t value them: that they are treated like subservient slaves. It is a significant reason why people quit their jobs. As a popular saying goes, people don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses.
Leaders bring a serious liability to their organizations when they don’t treat their people well. Employees may be driven hard, given unrealistic expectations, buried in work that they have no way to accomplish, or go unforgiven for past mistakes. This is a signal that their needs are not considered important, that they have little value in the eyes of the leader.
Leaders who treat their people this way give the impression that obedience is the most important factor: they are to do or die, not to question why. Messengers of bad news get shot. There is little understanding or caring about the staff. Only the leader’s needs matter. It sounds harsh, but unfortunately is common.
This is a clear demonstration of devaluing people and it causes serious consequences. Above all else, people need to sense value to maintain self-worth, confidence and positivity to do their work. Devaluing people strips them of these critical aspects, while debilitating the productivity and longevity of the staff.
Micromanaging is yet another way leaders demonstrate a devaluing of their people. It stems from the leader’s belief that no one can match their high standards, so they must be over-guided to get things right. People are not considered competent or trustworthy enough. This devalues and demoralizes them, and creates a stinging liability.
Leaders who listen poorly devalue their people by indicating that they have nothing important to say, that they can’t contribute. A leader who is lost in their own thoughts signals that only their thoughts are significant. They live in their own little world, and none of their people are worthy of entering it. As communicator and author Andy Stanley puts it, “Leaders who refuse to listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing significant to say.” That’s a serious liability.
When Leadership Emotions Take Over
Employees look to their leader to establish safety and trust. Leaders accomplish this in part with behavior that is rational, calm, logical and wise. They don’t get rattled by letting situations get the best of them.
Leaders who portray a solid, steadfast source of guidance and direction earn the trust of their people. The opposite is true for leaders who can’t control their emotions when the pressure hits. Employees question their security when their leader shows they’re not putting the team first.
Research conducted by Anderson and Adams reveals that leadership impatience is a common response to difficulty. Leaders who lack patience in tough situations release frustrations and resentments, showing an intolerance for something not going their way. It can be accompanied by anger and disrespect.
Impatience from a leader is a way of indicating that they believe something is wrong with their people. This is a damaging mindset, even if it’s momentary. People sense this and respond negatively. Leader impatience can also lead to taking shortcuts to make up for lost time, and that has its own set of potential consequences.
Anger and tirades are more serious behavioral problems indicating a lack of emotional control. Employees are put on high alert when the leader overreacts to bad news. People sense defeat and that can lead to depression, high stress and lower productivity. A leader with little emotional control is a liability to the organization.
Leaders can handicap their company by prioritizing their personal agenda over that of the company. When decisions are made favoring their personal gain rather than team accomplishment, the organization suffers. Protecting one’s image or turf can lead to lying, cheating, blame-shifting or credit-grabbing. It is damaging and is a liability to everyone.
Since the most damaging leadership liabilities have to do with the inability to work well with their people, leaders benefit best by making effective relationships a priority. As Anderson and Adams point out, the greatest challenge in minimizing these kinds of liabilities is to find an optimal balance between a focus on tasks and relationships.
In essence, the best leaders have minimized personality-related liabilities by valuing others before self. This is easier said than done. First, it requires an understanding of your liabilities and character. A trusted confidant can offer a different perspective and help you take a deeper look. This may be a close colleague or better yet, a qualified executive coach who has an impartial mindset.
Listen to those who can honestly counsel you and frankly describe what they see in you. They are helping you; be thankful for it. With this new knowledge, work to undo some of the behavior that threatens the unity within the ranks. Your people are not assets to be used merely for the sake of getting work done. They are your partners joining together to support your cause, wanting to succeed together. They want you to succeed as well.
Being mindful of this is the best way to develop appreciation for your people and show them that they are valued. You need to be valued, and so do they. Give yourself a mission every day to add value to them and watch the unity grow. This is the major difference between leaders who overcome liabilities and those who don’t.
If your behavior reflects honesty, authenticity and transparency, your people will see that you care about them and much of the damage caused by your liabilities can be reversed. Respect for your people will be returned multi-fold. Engage your people with enthusiasm and encouragement and you’ll be amazed at how they respond. Let go of control and see how well they grow and develop.
Your leadership liabilities are dependent on your outlook—your attitude. Are you willing to put in the effort to turn it around? Relying on the expertise of a seasoned leadership coach can get you off to a great start.