Think about the most effective leaders you know. They don’t have to brag about their leadership skills.
They just lead.
They’re excellent communicators. They tell everyone exactly what they need and expect. They can calm anyone down with the right words. They delegate, but they also roll up their own sleeves and pitch in.
They stand up for people who can’t.
Most of all, they lead by example. They demonstrate the behaviors they want from others. They set the tone. They put in more work than everyone else, but they never complain about it — not even when invited to.
Terrible leaders do the opposite, and you can learn a lot about leadership from studying their failures:
1. They don’t listen to experts
Someone who thinks they know everything will never learn anything. Terrible leaders assume they already have all the answers. They pretend to invite discussion and debate. But it’s just a puppet show to them. Afterward, they do what they want anyway.
Sometimes they skip the debate part and jump straight into an awful decision that blows up on everyone else.
Terrible leaders don’t want knowledge. They want certainty — which doesn’t exist. So they settle for the illusion of it.
Effective leaders do the opposite. They know they’re not a genius at everything, but they know more than the average person because they surround themselves with experts — and defer to them.
2. They take the wrong things seriously
You can always spot a truly terrible leader by observing them during a meeting. They slide their own pet projects to the top of any agenda. They fast-track their own goals. They spend tons of money on things they personally want to see happen. Screw everything else. They fixate on their customized trivia, instead of the bigger picture.
They dismiss everyone else’s concerns.
They use words like “minuscule,” “irrelevant” and “tangential” to describe what matters to anyone except them. They’re happy to let their most dedicated employees fend for themselves.
3. They surround themselves with sycophants
Terrible leaders can’t stand criticism. So they hire and promote anyone who’s willing to grind up their dignity and turn it into confetti. The worst leaders want people around who praise them for doing the bare minimum, and usually even less than that.
That’s why terrible leaders never get any better. They either start fights with real experts, or blow them off completely.
4. They say, “Nobody saw this coming”
There’s always someone who saw a terrible leader’s crisis from a mile away. The terrible leader just didn’t listen. They were too busy having their butt shined by ladder climbers.
A terrible leader finally takes good advice sometimes, but they do it weeks or months too late. They always have an excuse for not doing what they should’ve done. If that weren't enough, they convince themselves that the advice was actually their own idea.
The worst part is they also convince some of their followers — just enough to avoid looking completely incompetent.
5. They surprise people with their competence
You might find yourself looking at a terrible leader one day, and going “Oh, they actually did something smart.” They might actually say the right thing for once. It can make you feel deceptively optimistic.
This is a bad sign. When someone surprises you by doing the bare minimum, it means they’re a terrible leader.
6. They never really apologize
For terrible leaders, a genuine apology would mean acknowledging faults and mistakes. It would force them to see they need to change something about themselves, or their worldview.
An apology is a promise to do better next time.
That’s too much work.
It’s easier to just say the words “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize,” and then expect it to make everything okay. Terrible leaders are always surprised and offended when the person they hurt doesn’t accept their apology. They feel entitled to everyone’s forgiveness. A real apology means being grateful for a chance at redemption, and earning it.
7. They think they do an excellent job
Terrible leaders might have the slightest sense of their incompetence, but they drown it in the narrative of their own greatness. Whatever they’re bad at, they lie to themselves about — instead of trying to improve.
Truly terrible leaders think they’re outstanding. They think anyone who has a problem with them has some kind of character defect. This is how they justify covering their ears to criticism.
8. They joke about the wrong things
Effective leaders know when to use strategic humor to diffuse a tense situation. They see humor on a wide spectrum.
They never joke for the wrong reasons, which include — seeking attention, deflecting criticism, letting themselves off the hook.
They use understatement.
Real leaders don’t use humor to make themselves look funny. This is how someone ends up acting like a 12-year-old. Instead, they seek to make the people around them laugh. They don’t try too hard. Usually, they just point out something that’s already ironic or amusing.
Terrible leaders make callous and self-serving jokes. They make fun of their opponents. They make light of other people’s suffering, and offer glib remarks about dangerous situations — without doing anything to improve those situations, or protect anyone.
You deserve better than a terrible leader
There are good leaders out there. They’re everywhere. We just need to get better as individuals — and as a culture — at identifying them. Effective leaders are the ones you want in charge during a crisis. They’re the ones who make you feel safe at night.
They make you feel appreciated.
They might not fit the stereotypical image of a leader. Maybe they don’t always look super confident. They shouldn’t. That’s what terrible leaders do to trick people into following them.
Effective leaders don’t pretend to be experts at everything. They don’t lash out at critics. They have enough competence and confidence that they don’t feel the need to respond to every attack.
They don’t lull their followers into a false sense of security. They alert people to threats, and muster resources to prepare for them. They’re aware of their own biases and blind spots. So they’re constantly asking questions and consulting with those smarter than them.
Terrible leaders do the opposite of this. They brag about themselves. They look smart because they’re surrounded by fools. They look confident and in control, but in reality they’ve just found a way to project their narcissism and narrow-mindedness as strengths instead of liabilities.
The worst leaders don’t just con their followers. They con themselves. Deep down, they don’t even want to be leaders.
They just think they do.