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5 warning signs of a horrible boss in the making

Oct 17, 2011 Business Daily, Leadership

1. Kisses-up and kicks-down: “How does the prospective boss respond to feedback from people higher in rank and lower in rank?”
2. Can’t take it: “Does the prospective boss accept criticism or blame when the going gets tough?” Be wary of people who constantly dish out criticism but can’t take a healthy dose themselves. 
3. Short fuse: “In what situations have you seen the prospective boss lose his temper?”
4. Flamer: “What kind of email sender is the prospective boss?”
5. Card shark: “Does the prospective boss share information for everyone’s benefit?”
BOB SUTTON, www.bobsutton.typepad.com (7 July 2011)

Many forests have been felled in praising the works of great business leaders. But what about the bad ones? Bob Sutton, professor at Stanford, is building up an impressive body of work pointing out that most leaders on this planet are not just bad, they are terrible at leading.

In a recent blog post, Sutton gave 10 pointers that should signal to us whether we are looking at a horrible boss in the making. After all, leaders are not normally appointed overnight with no prior experience of their traits and behaviour patterns. Many bosses rise from within, and provide years of clues on whether they will ever understand the nature of leadership. I have selected five such pointers in the excerpt shown.

The first one says a lot about character. You know those types who snarl at juniors and then are charm personified when someone of higher authority walks into the room? Don’t ever promote them. They will cause widespread grief the higher they go. To treat underlings with disdain whilst buttering up superiors may be commonplace, but it shows character deficiency.

The second pointer is to observe people when they are criticized. If they react angrily or defensively, or immediately pass the blame, they should go no higher in your organization. A great leader says sorry and accepts responsibility without much hesitation.

The third and fourth traits cover temperament. Is this leadership candidate a frequent temper-loser? In what circumstances, and how frequently? There is always a place for occasional, well-directed anger in human affairs, but serial top-blowers are just a pain in the neck who will create widespread demotivation. Who will want to work with them? And these days, you can tell a lot about a person from their e-mail etiquette. Do they “flame” people without much thought, copying all and sundry? Or do they stop to reflect, and then have a quiet and civil word with the person they wish to admonish?

The fifth signal is around sharing and collaboration. These days you must have leaders who share readily and co-operate easily. The days of whispers behind closed doors and “need-to-know-basis” thinking are well behind us. Anyone who hoards information and never shows all his cards is never going to ascend to greatness. He is more likely to become a political manipulator who views all colleagues as competitors who must be kept away from vital information.

Would you impose a hot-tempered, intolerant, ill-mannered, secretive egomaniac on anyone you care about? I hope not. We should be similarly circumspect when it comes to giving people leadership positions. No matter how good the qualifications and results record of a candidate, character matters. In leadership, it matters more than pretty much anything else. If you are given the responsibility of choosing future leaders of teams, projects or even whole enterprises, look beyond the CV and pay a lot of attention to behaviour.

We can never get leadership selection perfectly right, and we are all going to have our share of making bad promotions that we later regret. But there are always warning signs, and we should all keep our antennae raised when assessing people we think should lead in the future.

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