“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
John F. Kennedy
You can learn almost as much about leadership from losers as you can from heroes. After 26 years of service with the Air Force, I have seen my share of both. I have had the honor of serving with superior commanders whom I would follow through the gates of Hell and the misfortune to suffer losers who stumbled blindly into a leadership position. Surprisingly, from both I have learned much about leadership.
A true student of leadership is always studying his leaders for good habits to emulate and bad habits to avoid. One of my instructor pilots was so talented, he knew whether or not I was making the right inputs on the controls of the aircraft even while watching me from his own aircraft a mile away. During the debrief following the flight, he had the ability to tell me that I was less than stellar that day, but still inspire me to try harder next time. He had the skill to ignite a desire to improve myself, a trait I have tried to assimilate into my leadership skill set. Alas, not all leaders can be as inspirational as he.
The good leaders in a person’s history are usually the ones that spring to mind when considering how to lead. I ask you to break from this habit and consider the leaders you would rather forget, the ones that still give you that feeling in the pit of your stomach or cause you to have nightmares. Those bad leaders can teach you what NOT to do, and those results can be just as beneficial in developing desired leadership qualities. What follows is a look at some of the losers in leadership positions with whom I have had the misfortune (privilege) of following. I do not mention any names, but everything that follows is from very real experiences…anyone look familiar to you?
“…bad leaders can teach you what NOT to do, and those results can be just as beneficial in developing desired leadership qualities.”
The “Self-Obsessed” – Look at me! It does not matter what anyone else does, just as long as I look good in the shower. This kind of loser uses people as stepping-stones on his way up the corporate ladder. So what can you learn from him? For me, it reinforced how important it is to take care of your people. Push your best performers out in front for them to shine. As Harry S. Truman said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit”.
The “Insecure” – You are all wrong, there is no way you can be smarter than me. I know best in every situation! This kind of loser can drive an organization into the ground very quickly. Even the strongest team member will stop trying if he is never valued. This particular leader taught me everyone in your organization is valuable. As a leader you often do not have the best solution, you need the valuable input from those who work for you. Make sure your employees know they are valued and you will be surprised by how much your entire team grows.
The “Idiot” – I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m in charge. Rational decisions are not my specialty. This loser drove me crazy, but I did learn from him! It is critical for the leader to know what he is doing, either from experience or by learning from those around him. The leader must have credibility both internally and externally to the organization. Be the expert, enforce the standards and listen to your people.
The “Know-It-All” – Let me tell you something…This is how you do it…You got it all wrong… Sound familiar? I used to cringe every time this loser came around. I tried to avoid interacting with this leader at all costs. I realized that to be a good leader I have to be approachable, to be open to other opinions and alternative points of view. Scaring everyone away will leave you alone and making decisions without all the necessary facts.
The “Couldn’t-Lead-Themself-Out-of-a-Wet-Paper-Bag” – Maybe we should go that direction. Or…maybe we should go that way…or, I don’t know. Ugh! This kind of loser is deadly. A lack of a decision can cause an organization to freeze, stagnate and go nowhere. Take from this loser the need to be bold and make decisions. Make a decision, start moving and assess as you go! A good leader assesses the environment, takes inputs from his team, makes a decision and moves out. If he is wrong, he can always make adjustments and correct the path of the organization.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. summed this up well when he said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Celebrate the bad with the good, embrace the demons from your past and make the bad leaders pay for the pain they caused by turning it into losers’ lessons on leadership.