Learning from the 7 bad habits of highly ineffective leaders

Leaders are human and suffer from bad habits like the rest of us — but they don’t have to.

A habit is a behavior we do automatically and unconsciously. We save energy by turning conscious behavior into unconscious habits. While this saves mental energy, a lack of self-awareness can lead to negative organizational consequences for leaders.

As a management consultant and educator for over three decades, Laura V. Page, director of leadership and management programs at UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, has worked with literally hundreds of leaders over the years, and in her current role she often conducts custom professional development classes for organizations, including coaching leaders.

Laura V. Page

Page will share some insightful and humorous stories of leaders who were “asleep” and needed to wake up to their not-so-effective habits at the In Business Expo & Conference, Oct. 16 at the Alliant Energy Center. While her discussion will cover seven habits of highly ineffective leaders, Page admits that with time she could easily name 70 habits — there are just that many ways that leaders get it wrong.

Starting with herself as an example of a leader who has noticed a few bad habits of her own, Page will share methods for developing self-awareness and encourage us all to avoid “just being me” thinking that can block us from becoming Stephen Covey’s “highly effective people.”

Because all of the examples Page shares are real, she omits organization names and is careful to use the singular gender-neutral pronoun “they” rather than he or she when describing bad leadership habits.

So, what are some of those seven bad habits?

One is micromanaging with a twist, explains Page. “This director of a national organization didn’t trust their staff to do a competent job on even some of the most mundane tasks. They would insist that many types of client emails be sent to them first for review, they would edit reports with an unnecessarily heavy hand, they would ask for constant formal and impromptu updates and would frequently overrule even simple decisions, such as what should be ordered for an in-office group lunch. The twist was that this leader often spoke enthusiastically about being proud that their organization was highly collaborative, warm, team-oriented, and a great place to work. It wasn’t.

“A second leader with a surprising bad habit, given the nature of their work, was a medical director at a health-care organization. I have worked with numerous health-care organizations, and this leader was unique in my experience. They were kind, personable, generous, and insightful, and also amazingly good at communicating with patients and families. However, this leader was so conflict avoidant that they almost never gave corrective feedback to staff, endlessly postponed sensitive problem-solving, and could not effectively conduct team meetings where people disagreed. As a result, conflict only increased. Some conflict went underground, and some burst out like fireworks. Although turnover wasn’t high because the staff was so committed, morale was tanking.”

Pages notes there are numerous reasons why leaders may often exhibit bad leadership habits, but she focuses on three common culprits. Most fundamentally, leaders are human. “We all have bad habits, and humans are creatures of habit. We don’t change easily; too often it takes some kind of crisis. Before we all get too judgmental here, it’s important to understand that our human brain is designed to create habits — habits of behavior and habits of thought. Habits save energy, and the brain is an energy miser.”

According to Page, most leaders and managers also have very little training in how to lead. Careers often develop very fast, and many degrees and courses of study contain little or no training in the soft skills — “an unfortunate term,” says Page.

“Another reason is leadership and management are difficult and complex,” states Page. “Leaders deal with so many things in addition to their human resources — competition, budgets and finance, technology, constant change; the list is daunting. They can’t be good at everything.”

The single, best way organizations can help their leaders overcome those bad habits and learn to develop good ones is through education, says Page.

“That’s not a surprising answer from me, an educator, but education can come in so many forms, both formal and informal,” Page explains. “Think mentoring and being coached. Think reading books and blogs and joining a community of practice. Think of the myriad of development classes available today in-person and online. We are blessed with so many resources in the Madison area.”

Another, somewhat obvious, answer is to promote people into management roles who actually want to manage people and who want to learn about how to do that well. “In general, organizations don’t have enough career paths upward,” Page notes. “If the only path to getting a substantial raise or promotion is to move into management, then guess what happens? Don’t guess, you know. Put the words ‘non-management career paths’ into an internet search engine and explore what can be done!”

At this year’s IB Expo & Conference, attendees will have the opportunity to gain critical business insight from area experts on leadership, branding, and sales through a series of three instructive seminars running throughout the afternoon.

To learn about Page’s other five bad ineffective leadership habits and more, register to attend the Expo.

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