USAA Tips: The importance of negative leadership examples

Content provided courtesy of USAA | By Chad Storlie

We have all had bad bosses or even really bad bosses. Normally, after a bad boss departs, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and then gets back to work. However, having a bad boss is one of the best leadership lessons because it teaches us what not to do. Becoming a better leader is a study of both what to do and what not to do.

I’ve taken information from my personal history, business history, and military history to come up with some learning points from bad leaders on how to become a better leader.

Good leadership is about consistent, open, and in-depth communication that is equal parts speaking and listening to all levels.

Bad leaders hide results and do not share executive guidance or stories, feedback, and customer insight that make a team’s job easier to do. Importantly, a leader who communicates well spends the majority of time listening, learning, asking questions and then speaking their opinion. A great leader encourages their own and others' learning.

Good leadership is about open standards applied equally with frequent written coaching that is specific, actionable and appreciated.

One of the reasons the military produces such strong leaders is the use of open standards for the successful performance of a task that are applied equally to all. In the Army, if I am a 30-day private or a 30-year general, there is one way to load, fire, and qualify safely on my assigned weapon. The use of open, written, and coached standards for everyone regardless of their level in an organization is a hallmark of a good leader. Leaders who have different standards, unspoken standards, or no standards are signs of bad leaders. People and teams perform better when they know the standards, specifically know what they need to do to be better, and know that everyone is evaluated fairly on the same standard.

Good leadership is about enabling your team to do their jobs better.

Bad bosses think of themselves as “tellers,” as in “do this” or “do that.” Good bosses think of themselves as enablers, as in, “What does your team need to do this?” Or, “What skills do you need to accomplish this?” Leaders who enable are encouraging initiative, strategic direction, customer focus, and strong execution when they ask what they can provide to enable success. Bad leaders who dictate, over-detail, and micro-manage encourage their teams to be passive, disregard poor consequences, and deemphasize their own initiative. When leaders enable others as opposed to dictate to others, they are creating a future generation of leaders.

Good leadership recognizes that people are an organization's best resource.

Easily one of the best “tells” of a good leader versus a bad leader is how well they treat others both in public and in private. Good leaders see people as sources of innovation, strategy, ideas, customer focus, and improvement. Bad leaders see people as “necessary” cost centers so “mildly important” job tasks can be accomplished. Treating others well does not mean not challenging others or not presenting the organization with audacious goals to be accomplished. Instead, good leaders realize that treating others well and with respect enables people to create the future and ongoing success of an organization.

Good leadership is embracing example-setting in all things.

The next best bad leader “tell” is the leader that has one style for the office, one style for on the road, one style in front of their boss, another style when they are stressed, and another style for in front of customers. Good leaders are consistent in their leadership style. The leader who displays the least variation in all situations is a leader who truly embraces example setting because they are being true to their original self. Bad leaders create inconsistency in their leadership styles in order to “hide” their true self which leaves everyone guessing which “self” they will encounter today.

Good leadership publicly embraces their mistakes.

When I was a 2nd Lieutenant in Korea, I was a mortar platoon leader and I was learning to fire the 4.2-inch mortar. As I was about to fire, one of my squad leaders noticed that one of my elevation bubbles on my mortar sight was off, and I needed to correct it before firing. Later, at our platoon after action review, the squad leader and I brought my mistake up simultaneously. This was good for two reasons. First, the squad leader knew that he could bring up the mistake of a leader in front of the team. Second, I was confident enough that I could admit making a mistake in front of my entire platoon. Organizations that are learning, innovating, and pushing boundaries will make mistakes at all levels. Organizations need to embrace the open discussion of mistakes, how to prevent them, and how to take the organization to the next level.

The next time you encounter a bad leader, use it as a time to understand how the example of bad leadership can help you become a better leader.