Top 4 Reasons Why Our Leaders Let Us Down

Here is why and how we get disappointed by the people in charge.

Posted Jan 20, 2020

There’s an old saying, “People don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses.” That’s no surprise given the many misdeeds of some leaders, particularly those who abuse followers through bullying or treating people unfairly.

A recent Gallup study found that as many as 82 percent of business leaders aren’t very good at leading. How can this be the case? Here are the four top reasons, derived from research on leadership and organizational psychology, why our leaders underperform and let us down.

1. Poor Use of Authority and Power

Leaders, particularly in business and government, have a great deal of authority and power that comes along with their positions. Research on the different forms of power that leaders wield suggests that using coercive power (the power of punishing people) is largely an ineffective leadership strategy, causing anger and resistance in followers. Rather than leading punitively, leaders are much more effective using positive reinforcement to encourage productive behavior in followers and developing good relationships with team members (what is termed referent power). Referent power builds employee loyalty and commitment to the cause. 

All too often, leaders become “intoxicated” with the power and control that they possess and it can lead them to believe that they are “above the law”—that the rules that apply to others in the organization don’t apply to them. Read more about how power corrupts leaders here.

2. Self-Serving Behavior

Wall Street’s character, Gordon Gekko, may have said “greed is good,” but when it comes to leadership, greed is bad. Highly narcissistic, self-serving leaders are all about themselves and tend to make poor leaders. Good leadership is about serving and enabling other people—empowering them, allowing them to develop their own capacity to lead, achieving shared goals. Unbridled greed is the enemy of good leadership.

3. Lack of Self-Control

Effective leaders must have self-control. It’s what keeps them from abusing power and falling prey to greed. Controlling negative emotions is very important. Leaders who lash out in anger, who seek revenge for real or perceived slights, or who harass employees, clearly lack self-control.

4. Incompetence

All too often, people are put into leadership positions simply because they have seniority, because of nepotism, or because they possess some characteristic that gets them the job (e.g., technical competence alone). It may be that there are so many poor leaders/managers simply because they don’t know how to be a leader. Even worse, some leaders may try to compensate for their incompetence through bullying or the use of dysfunctional political tactics.

What does it take to be a good leader?

  • Understand your leadership role. Your job is to motivate followers to achieve shared missions and goals through delegating and empowering followers to help build followers', along with your own, leadership capacity. Good leaders are positive role models who mentor and support.
  • Use socialized power rather than personalized power. Good leaders align the organization’s, the leader’s, and followers’ goals, and work for the good of the collective—a win-win-win strategy—where everyone benefits.
  • Engage in continuous development. Build your leadership competencies as you build the leadership capabilities of your team members. The very best leaders work hard to become better. In the end, they leave followers and their organizations better off than when they found them.

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