Leadership Competencies

7 bad leadership qualities CEOs should avoid

CEOs often prefer to focus on the positive. After all, it’s a good place to start when it comes to learning lessons and finding takeaways from both successes and miscues.

But CEOs also benefit from learning how to recognize when they’re exhibiting bad leadership qualities. And by approaching this self-examination with vulnerability and an open mind, CEOs can design a better leadership path moving forward.

Longtime Vistage Chairs Mike Malone and Cindy Mascheroni candidly spoke about the top 7 bad leadership qualities CEOs should avoid and suggested 3 questions to ask as a starting point.

These questions can help identify whether these tendencies show up in your own leadership style.


1. You don’t hold yourself accountable and place blame on others

As a CEO, owning up to your own mistakes builds credibility and trust. Your position and influence have nothing to do with looking good and everything to do with how you serve and sacrifice for your staff.

Fear is the enemy of humility, says Malone. Learn to show up fearlessly every day and be ready to think of yourself less, and you’ll convey commitment, creativity, innovation and admiration to your qualities says Malone.

“Everyone is watching you,” Malone says. “The worst kinds of leaders don’t take responsibility and are not accountable. They think they know everything and won’t take advice from anyone.”

Malone, a longtime leader in the business and military worlds, says that in his peer advisory group, he encourages CEOs to look at their reflection, do the work and improve on their poor habits and bad leadership qualities.

“Even though it’s not a platoon, we sort of act like one and hold each other accountable,” the former Marine says.

Leaders take responsibility for everything, and leaders should learn to turn missteps in their decision-making into opportunities to learn rather than point fingers.

“Asking the right questions is often more important than having all the answers,” says Handel.

Ask yourself: What could I have done differently?

2. You act like a bully

This is a category of bad leader that stands on its own, Malone says.

“Nobody likes them,” he says. “They don’t ‘lead.’ Nobody really follows. And they are totally ineffective.”

Bullies are rarely successful, Malone stresses. Belittling and humiliating others erodes trust. Effective leaders are committed to the individual contributors and the team.

For Malone, he thinks of a football team. “As a CEO, you want to provide resources for success, invest the time, provide the training, equipment, and support needed. And remember to listen.”

Malone encourages leaders to display respectful behavior and actively engage with their teams. Effective leaders also communicate clearly.

Most issues stem from lack of communication between leaders and their employees, including not having the proper resources, direction and tools to lead an organization.

Introspection and comparing/contrasting good vs. bad leaders is one way to begin assessing if you possess this leadership quality, Malone says.

3. You don’t actively listen

“A good leader listens and a bad leader doesn’t listen,” Malone says.

Start by improving your active listening skills. Begin with the 3 A’s: attitude, attention, and adjustment.

  • Having a good attitude means approaching criticism with respect and an understanding that there is always something new to be learned from others.
  • To be a good listener, you must have a good attention span. That means focusing on the individual talking to you and avoiding distractions or wandering thoughts.
  • Finally, adjustment is simply keeping an open mind to what the other person has to say.

No CEO sets out to purposely ignore or brush off others’ input but they can be oblivious to doing just that.

“Self-awareness, recognizing old patterns and being conscious of them is key to change,” Mascheroni says, who adds that she, like Malone, continually looks in the mirror to evaluate her progress.

4. You’re oblivious to weaknesses

Leaders sometimes claim to know their strengths and weaknesses; however, these shortcomings can be hard to identify. Often, they are the result of inaction.

Everyone else can see this clearly, except for the individual struggling to acknowledge their flaws. Self-awareness can help leaders see their weaknesses.

Mascheroni suggests a comprehensive, 360 assessment to become conscious of your blind spots and behavior patterns that limit your effectiveness. This will help you discover the one area where change would create the highest leverage.

From there, raising your level of awareness — coupled with asking for regular feedback as you practice a new behavior — will accelerate your transformation.

Ask yourself: What’s one step toward humility that I will make today?

5. You act selfishly

Both Malone and Mascheroni say they learned from good leaders who modeled selfless leadership. Mascheroni observed her parents’ authentic caring, which built trust with employees and clients at their small business.

“My dad really loved his clients. At 82 years old, with a few months to live, he asked me to drive him to visit a client who wanted his help with a decision. Serving clients was his passion. And mom really cared about their employees,” Mascheroni added. “It has been 20 years since running the business and former employees still keep in touch with mom.”

6. You’re indecisive

“Good leaders are decisive and bad leaders are not. And good leaders also recognize that decisions are not necessarily permanent,” advises Malone.

Effective CEOs clearly communicate the purpose of something and their expectations. Malone says this juxtaposes the ineffective leadership traits: “Bad leaders provide no direction, no instructions. Employees are kept in the dark.”

If you are seeing these types of patterns or are identifying your own bad behavior by looking in the proverbial mirror, then you’re on the right track. If you ask the right questions and make an honest assessment of yourself, you can train yourself to behave better.

Ask yourself: What fears dictate some of my decisions?

7. You aren’t willing to keep learning

Malone and Mascheroni are both CEOs and professional coaches who are open to coaching. They understand the value of continuous learning and growth, especially in this complex and changing business environment.

“One powerful way to accelerate your learning as a CEO is to join a diverse peer group where you can learn from each other’s experiences, gain perspective, and be accountable to your decisions and results. A strong group will also hold up that mirror for you to see your blind spots and take responsibility,” Mascheroni says.

Related Resources

3 reasons why gratitude in leadership is essential to success

3 essential leadership accountability tips for CEOs

Category: Leadership Competencies

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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