Bad leadership: 10 traits to avoid — and lessons bad leaders can teach us

Bad leadership characteristics - blonde woman in grey shirt speaking to subordinate
This article was originally published on April 9, 2021, and was updated on Nov. 29, 2023.
Do you know the signs of bad leadership? At their worst, bad leaders create toxic environments that hurt employee morale, stunt innovation, decrease performance, and can even lead to business failure. But when even one bad leadership trait rears its ugly head, the impact can rattle many areas of the organization. Thankfully, good leadership is a muscle you can develop and strengthen.

If you’re looking to improve your leadership techniques, it helps to start with an understanding of what bad leadership looks like. So, let’s review some of the most common signs of ineffective leaders. These 10 traits, habits and pitfalls of bad leadership serve as lessons in how NOT to lead — and a warning about the potential consequences if not heeded.

10 characteristics of bad leadership

Ever worked with leaders who play favorites, keep secrets, or take a “my way or the highway” approach to working with their team? That’s a bad leader. Here are red flags to look out for:

  1. Bad leaders lack empathy
  2. Bad leaders micromanage
  3. Bad leaders communicate poorly
  4. Bad leaders are egotistical
  5. Bad leaders resist change
  6. Bad leaders lack vision or direction
  7. Bad leaders have a negative mindset
  8. Bad leaders are inconsistent
  9. Bad leaders lack transparency
  10. Bad leaders are indecisive

You undoubtedly recognize some of these traits if you’ve ever worked with leaders who don’t have the skill or style to inspire their teams and steer their organizations to successful outcomes without unnecessary strife. That’s bad leadership.

What is leadership?

Leadership, by definition, is the act of guiding, influencing and inspiring others to work collaboratively towards a shared goal. Unlike management, which focuses more on organizing and directing resources, leadership involves strategies and techniques that evoke trust, commitment and collaboration among team members.

Some people believe leadership is about control and authority, but effective leadership goes much deeper. The greatest leaders of today are known for their supportive approach, problem-solving skills, adaptability, emotional intelligence and ability to inspire.

Great leaders blend empathy with strategic decision-making.

More traits of great leaders

In addition to leading with empathy and making strategic decisions, great leaders:

  • Provide safety: They create an environment where team members feel safe to voice their opinions, share concerns, and take risks without fear of retribution. This psychological safety is fundamental for fostering creativity and innovation.
  • Support their people: Beyond just assigning tasks, effective leaders offer guidance, training and resources. They are available for questions, provide timely feedback, and ensure that team members have what they need to excel in their roles.
  • Clear roadblocks: Great leaders proactively identify and remove obstacles that hinder their team’s progress. Whether it’s bureaucracy, resource constraints or interpersonal conflicts, they pave the way for smoother operations and workflow.
  • Celebrate success: Outstanding leaders give their employees the feeling of being seen and celebrated. This isn’t just about major milestones, but also the small victories along the way.
  • Know what makes you tick: Adept leaders invest time to genuinely connect with their team, tuning into each member’s unique passions, strengths, hurdles and dreams. They see the person behind the job title, fostering a deeper connection and trust.
  • Understand how to motivate you: Recognizing that motivation isn’t one-size-fits-all, good leaders tailor their approach. By understanding what drives an individual they can fine-tune roles and rewards to keep the team flourishing.

Organizations have started to realize that human capital (employee knowledge, skills, etc.) is their most valuable resource. This transition has made improving employee engagement and satisfaction a larger priority — byproducts of great leadership.

A study by Gallup found that 79% of employees are disengaged with their work, which results in added costs estimated at 18% of their salary. This finding and many other studies show how important leadership is in organizational culture, employee satisfaction and overall performance.

While you might think that leadership is an inherent trait, it’s quite the opposite — a muscle that requires constant exercising and strengthening. Leadership development is a lifelong journey, but in today’s complex work environments, developing effective leadership skills to encourage seamless collaboration has never been more important.

What is bad leadership?

If good leadership builds comradery, improves focus, increases engagement, and supports collaboration in the workplace, bad leadership centers around activities that counter those points. Leadership comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and bad leadership falls into a few buckets:

  • Self-interest
  • Control
  • Apathy
  • Inability to adapt
  • Lack of emotional intelligence

Bad leadership could stem from poor systems and processes within the organization rather than from the leader’s personal trait. And lack of proper communication is at the core of many of the most common issues that arise in the wake of bad leadership.

Simpplr has developed tools to streamline internal communications to solve many of these problems.

Now, let’s dive into 10 traits of bad leadership, with some real-world examples and key takeaways.

#1: Bad leaders lack empathy

Lacking empathy is a sign of bad leadership because it shows a clear disconnect between the leader and their team members. Empathy involves understanding and respecting others’ feelings, and it creates a sense of trust and mutual respect.

Without empathy, leaders will often neglect the feelings and perspectives of others. This has significant consequences, including:

  • Miscommunication: If leaders cannot empathize and understand context in relationships with team members, they are unlikely to be on the same page — resulting in miscommunication and misunderstandings.
  • Mistrust: If empathy builds trust and rapport, a lack of it causes distrust and risks damaging relationships.
  • Lower commitment: Employees are more committed when they feel heard and respected. Lacking empathy can leave employees feeling undervalued and misunderstood, which can decrease their commitment level.
  • Disengaged employees: Empathy shows employees that you care about them and their feelings, so a lack of it can lower morale and focus.

Discover types of communication styles leaders should know about

Bad leadership example: Uber’s lack of empathy

Uber faced controversy in 2017 for a toxic workplace riddled with sexual misconduct and discrimination. The CEO at that time, Travis Kalanick, responded with a clear lack of empathy. His response prompted visceral public and organizational backlash that eventually led to his resignation. An internal investigation revealed that his lack of empathy and other poor leadership techniques contributed to the toxic environment at Uber.

Leadership lesson: Empathy affects your bottom line

Empathy might seem like a mythical figure — some indescribable feeling — but, in the context of leadership, it can have a significant impact on your bottom line. During Kalanick’s resignation and the internal investigation, Uber’s valuation dropped nearly $10 billion. Therefore, prioritizing empathy as a leader can keep your employees happy, motivated and committed to your organizational goals, which will improve productivity and increase your bottom line.

How to be more empathetic

Indeed recommends a variety of strategies to develop your empathetic leadership muscles, including:

  • Be authentic — show you understand where people are coming from and give honest reasons for your actions/feedback.
  • Be present — eliminate distractions to engage in the moment as a source of understanding and support.
  • Be vulnerable — share your experiences, including challenges, to show you can relate to how others are feeling or what they’re going through.
  • Acknowledge success — recognize achievements big and small to show appreciation and respect.
  • Ask questions — Dig deeper to show you’re interested and care enough to learn more.

Take the leadership engagement challenge to hone your empathetic communication skills

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#2: Bad leaders micromanage

Micromanagement is another characteristic of bad leadership because it stunts creativity, adds stress, and shows your team members that you don’t trust their abilities. A leader who micromanages struggles to delegate tasks and wastes resources by focusing too much on the minutiae.

An unwillingness to forfeit control to your team members can have serious effects on you, your employees, and the company, including:

  • Stagnant operations: Micromanagement kills innovation and restricts the employee’s desire to explore, which can leave you with inefficient and outdated business processes.
  • Higher turnover: Many employees want autonomy, especially as they gain more experience within a field. If you’re micromanaging, you’re more likely to push good employees away.
  • Resentment: Team members who do not feel valued or trusted are likely to resent management, which can decrease productivity, commitment and job satisfaction.

Bad leadership example: Apple’s ultimate micromanager

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was a notorious micromanager in the company’s early days. He obsessed over every detail, bullied for perfection, and failed to delegate — creating what then-marketing exec Mike Murray described as an atmosphere of “fear, confusion and dysfunction.” His micromanagement style ultimately contributed to his ouster from Apple in 1985 and the commercial failure of his next venture, NeXT.

Leadership lesson: Teamwork makes the dream work

Though no less committed to creating unparalleled products, Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 as a more capable people leader. Through failure, he learned an important lesson. “Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them all the time,” Jobs said at the AllThingsD tech conference in 2010. Apple is now one of the most innovative and successful brands on the plant.

How to delegate

Delegating — which involves entrusting tasks or responsibilities to subordinates or team members — is an essential leadership skill. Effective delegation not only frees up time for leaders to focus on strategic planning, but it also fosters trust, builds team capabilities, and helps others develop their own skill sets. The key to successful delegation is clear communication, appropriate task assignment, and ongoing feedback.

Explore the importance of good leadership for work-life harmony

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#3: Bad leaders communicate poorly

Poor communication plagues most ineffective leaders. Lacking strong communication skills creates major friction between leaders and team members. This common trait of bad leadership manifests in myriad ways, including passive-aggressive communication, failure to listen to feedback, and even radio silence when transparent leadership communication is needed the most. A leader who cannot communicate effectively risks bottlenecks, mistakes and serious harm to the company culture.

A few common consequences of poor communication include:

  • Misunderstandings: Leadership is about guiding team members towards a shared goal, but if you cannot communicate that goal effectively, they cannot work toward it.
  • Added stress: Confusion stresses your team members, impacting their engagement and productivity.
  • Lack of commitment: Employees with clear goals are 3.6 times more committed. If you cannot communicate objectives to your employees, they are going to be less committed.
  • Conflicts: Like any relationship, poor communication can lead to conflict and dissatisfaction.

Bad leadership example: Boeing’s poor communication

Boeing has faced plenty of scrutiny for their poor communication and bad leadership, which led to multiple crashes of its 737 MAX airplanes. Internal research into the handling of the crisis revealed that Boeing’s leadership withheld known issues; leaders did not communicate problems to proper personnel, which ultimately affected safety protocols. In addition to withholding information, slow and poor communication between senior executives, engineers and regulatory personnel were also cited as contributing factors.

Leadership lesson: Leverage available resources to improve communication

One of the biggest lessons you can learn from Boeing’s mistakes is the importance of speed and transparency when it comes to internal communication. Modern intranets make it easy for leaders to share updates and other information to the entire organization or targeted employees.

How to become a better communicator

Improving your communication skills can lead to better relationships and increased success in all areas of our life. When communicating in-person or during virtual meetups, practice active listening, express yourself clearly, maintain eye contact, and take note of body language. Always show respect and empathy. In written communications, simplify complex language, humanize data, tie your message to your mission, and err on the side of transparency.

Learn more in Harvard Business Review’s How Great Leaders Communicate

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#4: Bad leaders are egotistical

Ego — not confidence — is a bright red flag for bad leadership. Prioritizing your own interests and viewpoints over your team members can alienate employees and lead to poor decisions without context or perspective.

There are many ways ego and self-interest can stunt an organization’s progress, including:

  • Shut down inclusivity: Diversity and unique perspectives are important team values, and egotistical leaders shut out any competing ideas that differ from their own.
  • Curtail collaboration: Collaborative workplaces are breeding grounds for success and innovation, but leaders who are unwilling to hear other perspectives discourage others from contributing.
  • Break trust: Self-interested motives and decision-making can lead other team members to feel like you don’t trust or value their perspectives.

Bad leadership example: WeWork’s egotistical leadership

Adam Neumann co-founded WeWork and was its CEO from 2010 to 2019. He openly discussed his ego as a double-edged sword that both motivated and distracted him. His self-centered habits and egotistical decision-making were cited as reasons for a failed IPO and almost led to the collapse of the company more than once. Alarmed by his bad leadership, the board eventually convinced Neumman to step down from his position.

Leadership lesson: Ego can hurt relationships and opportunities

A leader who acts out of self-interest and ego risks alienating team members and causing irrefutable damage. Great leadership involves an inclusive and self-less approach that embraces competing thoughts and opinions.

How to improve workplace dynamics

Leave your ego at the door. Leadership sets the tone for workplace dynamics, which significantly affect productivity and overall job satisfaction. By improving workplace dynamics, organizations can cultivate better employee relationships, promote collaboration, and nurture a healthy, positive work environment. Ask others to weigh in with ideas and feedback. And recognize and celebrate employee contributions that improve business outcomes and enhance the employee experience.

Learn how to get inclusive leadership right

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#5: Bad leaders resist change

Resisting change can be another indication of bad leadership. Whether it’s a reluctance to adopt new and improved technology or ignoring an outdated business process, resisting change can impede progress and leave you behind the curve within your market and industry.

The effects of this poor leadership characteristic include:

  • Inefficiencies: Change is a hallmark of progress, so if your leadership habits are hindering change, it’s likely leading to bottlenecks and inefficiencies within your organization.
  • Frustrated employees: Organizations should want their employees to bring new, progressive ideas to the table, but if leadership is unwilling to change, those employees may become frustrated and disengaged.
  • Lost competitive advantage: Innovation and adaptability are what help businesses evolve and grow. Resisting change can lead to missed opportunities and declining market share.

Bad leadership example: Blockbuster resists consumer trends

If you were born in or before the 90’s, the name “Blockbuster” probably sends a wave of nostalgia down your spine. But this once household name’s slow decline serves as a cautionary tale about the risks of resisting change. Blockbuster’s management was resigned to their role within the entertainment landscape and failed to see the consumer trend towards more convenient alternatives like Netflix and Redbox. As a result, Blockbuster plummeted from its peak $5 billion+ valuation in 2004 to bankruptcy in 2010.

Leadership lesson: Change or get left behind

If leaders resist change, it can have widespread negative effects on the company culture, employee morale and overall progress of an organization. Embracing change and innovation at the top sends signals throughout the organization that change is not a threat but an opportunity.

How to manage change

Effective change management involves a clear understanding of the drivers for change, a well-planned and executed implementation process, and a commitment to communication and stakeholder engagement. Strategic change management aims to minimize disruption, guarantee the success of change efforts, and establish a culture of ongoing improvement.

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#6: Bad leaders lack vision or direction

A lack of vision or direction is another example of bad leadership. Leaders, by definition, are meant to guide teams — setting their overarching vision and direction. When leaders lack clear vision, it leads to conflicts and stunts progress.

Some of the main consequences of leaders without vision/direction include:

  • Confusion and uncertainty: Without vision or direction, teams may feel disconnected and unsure if they are meeting expectations.
  • Lack of purpose: People are often motivated by the larger vision and purpose of their role. If that purpose is not clear, it can demotivate your team.
  • Wasted resources: Without a defined goal or vision, team members may waste time, money and other resources on projects that don’t align with the company’s direction.

Bad leadership example: Sears lacked a vision

Sears was once a retail powerhouse, but its management lacked a vision and could not adapt to the changing landscape. As ecommerce and other consumer trends began emerging, Sears’ leadership failed to set the company on a clear path forward. Instead, they watched sales slowly decline until finally filing bankruptcy in 2018.

Leadership lesson: Great leaders lead

Leading involves guiding and directing team members. If you’re leading others without a clear direction in mind, you’re unlikely to reach a desirable destination. One study from Gallup found that only 22% of U.S. employees strongly believe that their company’s leadership has a clear vision. Whether this statistic indicates a true lack of direction or just an inability to communicate that vision well, it’s nonetheless a sign of bad leadership.

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#7: Bad leaders have a negative mindset

Bad leaders will often fixate on problems, failures and mistakes instead of acknowledging and rewarding successes. This negative mindset can feed a toxic work environment that hurts performance and employee satisfaction.

Negative leaders can impact the organization in many ways, including:

  • Low employee morale: If you are always focused on the negative, your team members are less likely to feel valued and seen.
  • Employees afraid to speak up: When employees feel like their actions are under constant scrutiny, they have less incentive to speak up or innovate.
  • Increased turnover: People work for people, so if they are not feeling valued and are afraid to share their ideas, they are more likely to look for other employment.

Bad leadership example: BlackBerry’s negative mindset

BlackBerry was one of the most innovative and successful tech companies in the early 2000s, but it fell behind other competitors like Apple and Android because of bad leadership. BlackBerry’s former CEO, Thorsten Heins, was known as a pessimist and often focused on the mistakes, not successes, of his employees. This negative mindset created a toxic workplace that stunted innovation and growth — which, along with other poor decisions, contributed to the slow deterioration of BlackBerry’s market share.

Leadership lesson: Balance the good with the bad

Great leadership is not about ignoring the bad; it’s about handling the problems and mistakes within a team objectively and with careful consideration. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania looks specifically at the effects of positive thinking. One of the report’s more interesting findings is that a positive mindset improves creative thinking, problem-solving and mental productivity — which are all characteristics of great leaders.

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#8: Bad leaders are inconsistent

Inconsistency is another common sign of bad leadership. An inconsistent leader is unpredictable and makes erratic decisions, sets unrealistic expectations, and struggles to communicate clearly.

Inconsistent leadership can result in:

  • Lower productivity: Constantly shifting goals and expectations make it hard for team members to prioritize their activities efficiently, which hurts productivity.
  • Elevated stress: Imagine working for someone who is constantly moving the goalposts and making impulsive or sudden changes. This type of bad leadership makes teams walk on eggshells.
  • Lack of unity: Great leaders can unite teams and encourage collaboration, but inconsistent leaders do not allow for the same level of cohesiveness in a group.

Bad leadership example: Hewlett-Packard’s inconsistencies

From 1999 to 2005, Carly Fiorina was HP’s CEO. She has received a lot of criticism for her time leading HP, in part, because of the inconsistent and questionable decisions she made. For example, she spearheaded the acquisition of Compaq, which was seen as a risky business decision. She also made sweeping changes to the organizational architecture to gain more control, which resulted in layoffs and less agility. Ultimately, the erratic and inconsistent nature of Fiorina’s leadership style and the declining stock price under her tenure led to her termination in 2005.

Leadership lesson: Consistency breeds stability

One of the main takeaways from Fiorina’s time at HP is that her decisions led to an unstable environment with internal and external mistrust. A recent survey from LinkedIn found that 56% of U.S. employees value stability over flexibility. In other words, great leaders should strive to be consistent in their words and actions because it creates a more stable and secure culture.

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#9: Bad leaders lack transparency

This is one of the most alarming signs of bad leadership. Why? Because a leader who lacks transparency can appear dishonest, which risks undermining the trust of the entire team.

Being a transparent leader is not just about sharing timely information — it’s about speaking honestly with everyone about the rationale and reasoning behind your decisions.

A lack of transparency in your leadership style could result in:

  • Distrust: Great relationships are rooted in trust, so without it, collaboration, communication and commitment can break down.
  • Uncertainty: If leaders are not upfront and honest, it can lead to uncertainty and instability in your team members. This feeling can distract and demotivate employees.
  • Lower engagement: A lack of transparency can hide the “why” or purpose behind activities — and without it, employees are less likely to engage with their roles.

Bad leadership example: Theranos’ secrets

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes might be considered the epitome of bad leadership. She made a name for herself and company by promising a new and revolutionary change to blood testing — helping raise over $700 million. However, Holmes’ lack of transparency, along with her general malpractice, contributed to her eventual downfall. She would not disclose how her device worked, even to investors. She silenced employees, and lied about the accuracy of the test results to patients. Eventually, her secretive leadership style caused a breakdown of trust with her allies, resulting in legal actions and closure of the business.

Leadership lesson: Transparency builds trust

One of the main takeaways from Theranos is the power of transparency. Being honest with your team and other colleagues is crucial, but it’s also important to be honest with yourself. Trust, accountability and credibility are all tied to transparency, and without it you risk creating a culture of distrust. Instead, practice being transparent with your team, create a safe space for others, listen to your employees, and be willing to admit your mistakes. The “actions speak louder than words” idiom is a great way to think about transparency and leadership.

How to be a transparent leader

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has some great tips for leading with transparency, including:

  • Set clear expectations: Consistency is key here. Establish a cadence for sharing organizational updates and feedback.
  • Discuss your organization’s goals and future: This enables employees to clearly see how they fit into the big picture — and helps reduce unpleasant surprises.
  • Be honest about current challenges: Not just the good news. This helps build trust and camaraderie.
  • Embrace feedback: Create a space for employees to share their feedback, even anonymously. Address it authentically and regularly.

Get tips to build trust in the workplace

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#10: Bad leaders are indecisive

Decisiveness is often considered a characteristic of a strong leader, so indecisiveness can have adverse effects. Leaders who are indecisive, or even slow to act, paralyze organizational progress. Decisiveness is more than just making a decision — it requires collecting and comprehending relevant information — and then making the best choice for the organization. An indecisive leader will overcomplicate and stall that process.

The quality of bad leadership can lead to:

  • Bottlenecks: When a leader fails to make a decision, a project can stall, causing a ripple effect of delays throughout the organization.
  • Wasted resources: Time is one of your organization’s most valuable resources, and wasting it with indecisiveness has direct effects on your bottom line. The costs of delays and the opportunity costs add up quickly.
  • Waning confidence: If you’re a leader with a reputation for indecisiveness, you may see your team’s confidence begin to waiver. Employees look to leaders for guidance and direction, and indecisiveness can cause employees to lose faith in your ability to lead.

Bad leadership example: Kodak’s indecisiveness

Before Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, it was considered one of the leading names in the photography industry. What most people don’t realize is that Kodak actually had early patents for digital photography technology — it created the first digital camera in 1975. However, Kodak continued to focus on its film business and waited until the late ‘90s to begin investing in digital photography. By that time, it was too late. Kodak’s leadership was too slow to act on its previous advantages, which ultimately led to its demise.

Leadership lesson: Decisiveness leads to innovation

Great leadership is not just about making decisions and taking risks — it’s about collecting relevant information, deciphering what it means, and then making the best decision with that information.

How to make better decisions

Forbes suggests five elements leaders must have to make effective decisions: Information, humility, perspective, culture and a plan.

  • Start by gathering all the data you need to make an informed decision.
  • Then, keeping in mind that there are other smart people in the room, solicit advice about the issue you’re grappling with.
  • Take the time to consider every facet of the issue — like emotional, cultural and historical context.
  • The best leaders also cultivate a culture that resists strictly top-down decision-making in favor of considering other inputs from informed team members.
  • Finally, use a strategic planning tool like a SWOT analysis or Lean Canvas to help you consider all areas of the issue at hand.

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Avoid the pitfalls of bad leadership

Strong leadership requires a harmonious blend of competence and charisma — a magical mix missing in bad leadership. Poor leaders might not possess the technical knowledge required for informed decision making, have inadequate social skills, and might have trouble building rapport with their team. All in all, bad leadership can detrail an organization’s potential and culminate in a hostile workplace for employees.

Becoming a great leader is not just about inspiring and managing a team — it also involves understanding and avoiding the common pitfalls of bad leadership mentioned above. No leader is perfect, but great leaders can recognize their faults and work on strengthening those weaknesses through improved techniques and external resources.

How Simpplr can help

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See why over 1000 global brands trust Simpplr, the most comprehensive intranet platform that makes leadership easier while delivering a cohesive employee experience — all in one unified platform.

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This article includes content originally contributed by Hani Khan.

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