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Most of you will have heard of the seminal self development classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“. Written a quarter of a century ago, this book was so fundamental and insightful, that it remains as valid in our 24x7, über-connected knowledge economy today as it was when it was published in 1990.

I only read the book for the first time last year, but it left a lasting impression on me, one of the most impactful non-fiction books I have ever read. I strongly recommend it to anyone who is truly interested in understanding how to be more effective. More effective not just in work, but in their personal relationships as well, and in life in general. I hope that Stephen Covey doesn’t mind that I am paying homage to his great book with this article’s title.

For the sake of breaking this post up into an easily readable size (and possibly to build some suspense!), Part One here covers Bad Habits 1-3, while Part Two, coming in a few days, will cover Bad Habits 4-7.
We all have Bad Habits

The thing is, we’re not perfect souls, and all of us pick up Bad Habits. Looking back on what I could have done better when I was leading my team in investment banking, I am aware of some Bad Habits of mine that now make me cringe in hindsight. Reflecting on episodes of poor leadership that I have witnessed in my career, it struck me that there are a handful of poor leadership traits that tend to crop up time and time again.

Adopting Covey’s 7 great Habits will surely lead you to be more effective. But equally, recognising any of these 7 Bad Habits in yourself, and making a commitment to work on them, is also a valid route towards self-improvement and greater effectiveness.

Simply by creating less angst, resentment and negativity as you crash around the workplace, you will find that you can lead more effectively.

“Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration”

Robin S. Sharma, Canadian author & leadership expert (1965 – )

Are you a Leader?

Before we dive into the 7 Bad Habits of Highly Ineffective Leaders, let’s take a moment to clarify who the leaders actually are.

The obvious answer is the CEO, board members, senior executives, the divisional management team – in short pretty much anyone in an organisation who has their own swanky corner office, p.a. and pot plants.

But it runs much deeper than that. Anyone can choose to lead, simply by deciding to take responsibility, improve their performance, support their peers, and do the right thing.

So, before you decide that any of these toxic Bad Habits don’t apply to you because you aren’t senior enough, think again. Even if you are simply a new graduate in charge of a couple of interns over the summer, you are a role model. Your actions impact all of those around you, and Bad Habits place a limit on your effectiveness and contribution.

Followers of Daniel Goleman and the other leading proponents of Emotional Intelligence will find easy resonance with this article. Self awareness is a fundamental building block of Emotional Intelligence, and if you can recognise and admit to any of these bad habits in yourself, you are already on the way to addressing them.

So with this in mind, what then are the 7 Bad Habits of Highly Ineffective Leaders?

“The worst disease which can afflict executives in their work is not, as popularly supposed, alcoholism; it’s egotism.”

Robert Frost, American Poet (1874 – 1963)

Bad Habit 1: Egotism

We all have an “ego”, our own appraisal of our self worth and the value we bring to others. This is absolutely normal, the natural process within us of evaluating who we are and the impact we have on others. The problem arises when this morphs into egotism, nattily defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the fact of being excessively conceited or absorbed in oneself”.

We see evidence of this arrogance all the time at work. Someone who is convinced that they know best, that they are right. Someone who loves the sound of their own voice, and preaches the gospel to those around them. They hog meetings and dominate others. They don’t admit that they’re wrong, and they never apologise for their actions.

At best this behaviour is highly irritating.

A total lack of humility is a highly unattractive character trait, and egotists will struggle to build the relationships and support that are critical to being effective in an organisation (and in life, in fact). People will stop listening, and engage with others who are more open to building a collaborative relationship.

At worst, egotists can do great damage to organisations.

When combined with authority or power, egotists can pursue dangerous strategies which inevitably impact business results, revenues, clients and careers.

The financial crisis threw up several case studies of extreme egotism, when once-great firms were needlessly driven over the cliff by the arrogance of executives who failed to heed warnings from others that the business was heading into dangerous waters. Whistleblowers were uniformly ignored – and often moved aside – because they dared to challenge the wisdom of the CEO’s great mission.

Less dramatically, we’ve all witnessed people investing in their pet projects. Scarce resources are wasted on bad ideas that are pursued to inevitable failure just because the egotist who dreamt them up won’t accept that the project is being badly executed, or just a plain dumb idea.

Egotists usually get their comeuppance. They inevitably make a mistake too far, or too big, and then all support for them vanishes and they are ‘moved on’. But they leave behind them a trail of damage and destruction that impacts business results, wastes resources and can take years to correct.

Of course, some will say that being egotistical is a necessary part of being a strong leader. Great firms aren’t built by shrinking violets who are afraid to throw their weight around and push others to get results. Perhaps.

But show me a great firm or business or even a team which implodes, and I’ll show you an egotist at the helm. There are better ways to lead.

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

Ernest Hemingway, American author, Nobel Prize winner (1899 – 1961)

Bad Habit 2: Being Deaf to Others

Ask an employee why he is frustrated at work, and right up there will be the answer: “No-one listens to me”.

Not listening to others is a classic failure in any context, something that is bound to limit your capacity to build effective relationships, both business and personal. It is a toxic Bad Habit closely related to egotism, since egotists think they know best, and if they know best, what is the point of listening to others?

As a manager, not listening to your people is a truly corrosive Bad Habit. It sends a message that none of your people have anything valuable to say. It disempowers them and demotivates them.

Employee engagement is a monumental challenge across all large organisations, according to this survey of global businesses published last year by Deloitte. There is no surer way to drive disengagement than not listening.

Your people are at the coal face. They are close to clients, close to operations, close to problems as they arise and close to opportunities as they surface. They, not the C-suite, are the eyes and ears of the organisation. Why wouldn’t you want to listen to them?

What’s more, how can you learn anything if all you hear is the sound of your own voice?

Being deaf to others takes many forms. Overtly ignoring advice and opinions is one obvious manifestation, as is shouting down others in meetings. But what about the subtler forms of not listening?

Do you ignore uncomfortable emails? Do you sit in your office all day with your door closed? Even if your door is open, glass walls create a barrier and send a message that you are less available. Is your diary always full, meaning you cannot find any time for others? Are you always rushing around putting out fires, with no time to stop and listen to someone else’s needs?

Moreover, and less obviously, not listening to others is simply an increasingly dangerous business strategy.

For most of the 20th Century, large organisations were characterised by rigid hierarchical structures.  The leaders at the top were the experienced, connected, well-educated elite, issuing orders. The foot soldiers at the base of the pyramid simply carried out the instructions, robot-style.

This was the classic Leader-Follower model, where the best firms were typically those that had the best people and processes to execute the mission, finding incremental efficiencies to improve customer service, lower prices and build market share (think how Japan became an industrial powerhouse by inventing Just In Time production, for example).

But in the 21st Century knowledge economy, things are different.

Why should the people at the top of today’s organisations have a monopoly on good ideas? According to this article, the numbers of students in university education worldwide is set to double between 2012 and 2025. This explosion in tertiary education globally – a trend already in place for decades – means that workforces will generally be better educated than ever before.

The foot soldiers don’t just have secondary school exams tucked up their sleeves, they have degrees coming out of their ears.

To my mind, this has to imply that the base of the corporate pyramid, the “follower” cohort, is increasingly likely to be a rich source of ideas and innovation. They’ve done something that their bosses haven’t done, which is grow up with iPads and smartphones glued to their hands. They embrace technology like no other generation in history. They are early adopters. They experiment. They are the Zeitgeist of the information economy.

Telling today’s highly educated foot soldiers to follow instructions is akin to driving an Aston Martin in 1st gear. Open it up! Give it room to stretch its legs! Explore it’s true limits!

In today’s world, “Adapt or Die” is just not enough. Companies need to “Adapt better than most of our competitors are adapting, or we will still Die”. Unleash the full creativity of your entire workforce and new ideas will bubble up like never before.

But unless you listen, and create an environment where listening is central to the culture of the workplace, one of two things will happen. Either these ideas will be stillborn, never given the oxygen to flourish into a better way to do things. Or worse, much, much worse, your smartest foot soldiers will simply vote with their feet and decamp to better companies which embrace their youthful exuberance and innovative contribution.

“Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory”

Leonardo da Vinci, Italian polymath
(1452 – 1519)

Bad Habit 3: Misusing your Authority

“Listen to me! I’m the boss!!”

I remember being promoted to Managing Director. I remember well that feeling of instant power – suddenly having the authority to issue commands and get people to jump to attention!

“I’m important! Accept that I am right and don’t argue with me!”

I remember a situation where I was having a very lively business related debate with a young bright salesman in my team. We both thought we were right, and were sticking to our guns, going at it hammer and tongs for a good ten minutes. There was no shouting, just a passionate exchange of firmly entrenched views. Others were looking on and probably getting a little exasperated, or just bored.

Eventually I decided that I was getting nowhere and would pull the plug on the conversation.

I said something like: “Look, I’m your boss, I’m right, this conversation is over. Get back to calling your clients”. My young colleague, shocked, muttered “Wow that’s a ridiculous thing to say!”, but reluctantly turned round and got back to work.

I sat there with a smug look on my face thinking I had won the argument. But of course I had lost the argument, and much more besides. I had lost the respect of the young buck, and lost credibility in front of the other team members witnessing the whole thing.

I had wielded that big fat stick that says “I have more authority than you, so do as you are told”.

Looking back on that episode, it is clear to me that I behaved terribly. What I should have done was to say: “Look, we both have strong views, either of us could be right, but let’s agree to differ and get back to work”. Or even better: “This is a great debate but we need to get on, can we pick this up after work over a drink?”.

That of course would have required a degree of humility, and the discipline not to resort to my position of authority to close the debate.

These kind of episodes happen every day in every organisation across the world. By virtue of being a “boss”, people can’t help but “boss people around”. “Boss” is frankly a disastrous label for a manager as it actually encourages the idea of bossing people around. Of exerting the power that comes with the title.

Of course, a far superior and effective way to get someone to do your bidding is the art of persusasion.

Give some context which makes your request seem perfectly reasonable. A little extra effort when making a request will pay dividends longer term. Your people will have more information, make better decisions themselves, and you will avoid all the unhelpful fallout from the kind of behaviour I described above.

“This is rubbish! I’m far too busy and important to take the time explaining why I need something done NOW!!!”.

No you’re not. Unless you are in the armed services, you are not in the business of issuing orders and pulling rank just to get things done. You are in the business of being reasonable to your work colleagues, giving full information to help contextualise the need to get something done urgently, and building buy-in and support from your people.

Bad Habits 4-7 are coming soon in my next post.