Why Poor Leaders Are Valuable

Thomas Edison famously replied when asked whether his repeated failures (ten thousand plus) at creating a working light bulb frustrated him: “No, I just discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” When someone demonstrates poor leadership, he or she is showing you one way not to make your light bulb.

My father gave me similar advice while I was attending Navy Officer Candidate School after I had complained about some of the leadership traits of my peers and senior candidates in charge of us:

Correct in yourself what you do not like in others.

This single phrase helped me see people’s weaknesses or inabilities not as a chance to point out their blemishes but to look inward and see what I could change about myself.

When people miss this lesson, it’s a wasted opportunity. You may never be able to change the person above you, but you do have the power to create a better work environment for those under you.

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Stepping Up Without Learning

At Officer Candidate School (OCS), I noticed an interesting phenomenon of how people transition into leadership. Sometimes they go on to make the same exact mistakes of those who came before them.

Senior candidates (referred to as Candidate Officers or “Candios”) are leaders at OCS. Nearing graduation, they had the job of guiding and mentoring junior candidates (known as either Officer Candidates or Indoctrination Candidates, the most recent check-ins). Candios were either universally loved or hated.

The good ones were patient with us, took time to explain things, and helped get the supplies and equipment necessary to successfully complete our upcoming evolutions. The Candios we didn’t like talked or yelled at us (instead of to us), never took the time to explain things clearly, and were more concerned about themselves than the wellbeing of their subordinates.

You would think that when the time came for us to step into a leadership position, we would all choose to emulate the candidates we liked, right? Yet when we finally became Candios, some of us became like the leaders we admired and others turned out more like the ones we despised.

While some candidates didn’t learn positive traits from good leaders, another equally important factor is that they did not take the time to learn from negative examples set by those who had gone before us.

The Real Meaning of Leadership

In the military, much like the corporate world, “leadership” is one word that is bandied about with astonishing frequency. Now, one thing about being on a ship is that unless you’re the Captain, someone is going to be in charge of you — and unless you’re the most recent check-in, fresh out of boot camp, you are probably in charge of at least one other person. The corporate world is not all that different. In the most technical sense, almost everyone is a leader.

The painful reality, however, is that not everyone is a good one.

When I was a young entrepreneur, I was a pretty bad leader. I tended to be tyrannical and quick to anger. I rarely listened intently to my employees, and I wasn’t always appreciative when people went above and beyond to bring in extra business or ensure the satisfaction of our repeat customers. Then, I became a commissioned officer in the United States Navy and witnessed firsthand other people making the same mistakes that I’d made.

If there is one priceless benefit the Navy has given me, it is the opportunity to learn from the negative leadership examples of others. Reflecting on my time as a leader in the business world and now as a leader in the military, I have come up with three common mistakes that most poor leaders (civilian and military) tend to make.

1.   Overuse of Positional Authority.

“Because I said so!” is a parental cop-out, but how often have you found yourself using your position to justify implementing a policy or get someone to do something?

People who over-rely on positional authority use phrases like “It’s my name on your paycheck” and “Because I outrank you!”. As a young, hot-headed entrepreneur, I used the first phrase a lot. Now, as a Naval Officer, I try to be the kind of person who doesn’t need to rely solely upon my position to get people to do things.

2.   A “Do as I Say, Not as I Do” Attitude

You can’t be too harsh on other people when you’re the one setting a bad example. Telling people they need to show up to work on time also means you’re telling them, “I will never be late.” Want to extend working hours? You’d better be the first one in and the last one out.

I used to get on my employees’ case for not dressing professionally when they were out in the field interacting with customers. But when my technicians came into the office, they’d see me wearing a T-shirt, tattered jeans, and a raggedy Oakland Raiders ball cap. While I’d only dress like this when I knew I wouldn’t be seeing clients in the office, I probably didn’t give my employees a good impression. In my mind, it was okay because I wasn’t the one dealing directly with customers — but from their perspective, I was setting a double standard.

Saying something one hundred times is not as good as living it once” is a phrase I try to remember every time I give someone an order. Yes, I’m telling someone to do something — but vocalizing a command pales in comparison to setting a good example for others to follow.

I’ve experienced the receiving end too. A superior officer in my direct chain-of-command would tell me I “had to attend PT (physical training) with the rest of the Sailors,” but during our early morning workouts, he would show up late (if he showed up at all). Now whenever we have divisional PT sessions, I always make sure that I’m out there with my Sailors — and when we run as a group, it doesn’t matter how late I stayed up at the club, I make it a point to stay at the front of the pack.

Leading from the front is a hell of a lot different (and harder) than perching at the top and rolling shit downhill on everyone else.

3.   Failure to Facilitate.

Self-centered, “me-first” leadership is commonplace both in the military and in corporate America. To me, most human interaction is a give-something-to-get-something proposition, but far too many people lead with a give-nothing-take-everything attitude.

Failure to facilitate is a direct result of a failure to empathize. If you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes, how can you lead effectively? Take a moment of pause to determine what people may want or need before demanding that they be better, faster, or more productive.

If you demand longer hours, higher sales figures, or better customer service without giving the people you manage the tools to succeed in these endeavors, then you’re expecting more without adding anything to the equation.

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I’ve seen too many underlings complain about the way they are treated by the people in charge and then, once they climb up the ranks, treat the people under them in the same fashion. Every time poor leadership rears its ugly head, those who suffer its ill effects should take it upon themselves to heed the valuable lesson being provided.

Failing to learn from the mistakes of poor leaders means that everyone’s painful experiences are nothing more than wasted opportunities, doomed to repeat themselves time and again.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons