9 Virtues Blog

Four Huge Obstacles to Good Leadership

by Rob Jenkins


The more I talk to friends and acquaintances who work in a wide variety of fields—from K-12 education to insurance, from retail to health care—the more I’m amazed (aghast?) at just how many bad leaders are out there.

It would be tempting to say, based on my personal experiences and what I hear from others, that most leaders are at least bad at leading and perhaps even bad people. I don’t know if that’s true or not, statistically speaking—but it sure seems like it, sometimes.

Of course, the individuals reporting the bad behaviors of their bosses may themselves be biased. The conflicts they cite could stem from simple differences of opinion or personality clashes. Or perhaps they themselves are bad employees. That’s always a possibility. (Because I bet, if you surveyed the bosses, you’d be surprised to hear what percentage of workers they think are bad at their jobs.)

Those factors together probably account for some of what I’m hearing—but not all of it, by any means. I think the truth is, there are a lot of bad leaders (bosses, managers, whatever you want to call them) and people suffer greatly at their hands. Organizations, clients, and communities probably suffer as well.

The question is, why? Why are there so many bad leaders? Obviously, there are many answers to that question, but I think we can really boil them down to four—two of which aren’t necessarily the fault of those bad leaders, and two which are most certainly their fault, but all of which they could conceivably do something about.

Ignorance. One of the main problems I’ve encountered, and that I often diagnose when I hear friends talk about their terrible bosses, is that many people simply don’t know HOW to be a better leader. They’re not aware of the qualities that good leaders should have, like empathy and selflessness, or of the skills that good leaders practice, like listening and prioritizing.

The issue for me (and, I’m sure, for many others) is that all those things seem like they should just be common sense. As I was working on The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, I constantly had the thought that many of the things Karl and I were saying were not new or particularly insightful but rather things everybody should already know.

Clearly, that’s not the case. It’s obviously necessary for leaders to become educated regarding what it takes to be a good leader. Those who work for or with good leaders are able to do that partly by observing and emulating their own bosses. But others, quite frankly, might need to read books, take courses, and/or listen to expert speakers and trainers.

That’s why formalized internal leadership development is so vital for any organization. You can’t expect people to know something they’ve never been taught.

Inexperience. Sometimes new leaders have the right instincts but don’t always know how exactly to respond to various situations that arise. They simply lack experience.

In fact, this is a very common problem for organizations, because the way it usually works is that someone who is good at their job gets a promotion and suddenly finds themselves in a position of leadership, even though they’ve never been in a leadership position before. Being a good salesperson, mechanic, accountant, or nurse is no guarantee that you’ll be good at leading other salespeople, mechanics, accountants, or nurses.

Again, this is where leadership development becomes so important. If you have people in your organization who are quite competent at their jobs, but don’t have much experience managing or leading others, it’s vital that they receive some kind of training, including hands-on activities like case studies and role-playing.

Pride. We list Humility first among our 9 Virtues because we believe it is the foundational virtue, the one from which all others flow. We believe a person cannot be an effective leader without an appropriate amount of humility.

That being the case, it follows that the opposite of humility, pride, constitutes a major obstacle to effective leadership. When leaders want what they want, regardless of what’s best for others or the organization, whether to gain some tangible reward or perhaps just to make themselves look or feel better, that makes it difficult for people to follow them. It creates resentment, threatens trust, and erodes confidence in the shared nature of the enterprise.

The problem with pride is that, unlike ignorance and inexperience, it is a character flaw. You can’t blame someone for not knowing something they’ve never been taught, nor can you blame them for lack of experience. You just have to work with them to address those deficiencies. But combating pride entails more than just professional development. It requires people to recognize that flaw and desire to change.

Even so, a healthy, virtues-based leadership development program, like the one we’ve created based on The 9 Virtues, can go a long way toward helping people realize they need to change—and showing them how to go about it.

Dishonesty. This is another common character flaw that impedes progress, stymies leadership, and creates toxicity within an organization. And, just like pride, you can’t simply “train” people out of dishonesty. If people are fundamentally dishonest, no amount of professional development is likely to change that.

Fortunately, most people are not fundamentally dishonest. In most cases, they desire to do the right thing—to be honest, open, and forthright—they’re just not sure how. They’re afraid that, in doing so, they might someone endanger their position or cause people not to like them. Yet what they often don’t realize is that their failure to be completely honest is having that precise negative effect.

This, once again, is where personal development—and not just leadership development—comes in. That’s our approach at AAL, using The 9 Virtues: We’re not just trying to create better leaders, we’re trying to develop better human beings. Because we deeply believe that, as people work on themselves—their own character flaws and personal deficiencies—they will in fact become better leaders. In fact, that’s the only way people become better leaders: by first becoming better people.

We would invite you, as you consider these points, to consider also where your organization stands in terms of leadership development. Are you doing anything to develop leaders from within? Are you doing enough? Is what you’re doing effective? Does it take the right approach?

As you answer these questions honestly for yourself, we would invite you also to review The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders and decide if its straightforward, virtues-and-values-based agenda is a good fit for your organization. Then give us a call, or shoot us an e-mail or tweet, and we can talk about tailoring a program specifically for you and your people.