I call it the “moment of leadership truth.”
I’ll be talking with a CEO, taking stock of the leadership culture in their organization. We’ll be comparing notes on the leaders they oversee and discussing how to navigate the challenges ahead. And then it hits them: their leadership gap is more significant than they thought; their leaders are not going to get them to where they need to be; and even worse, their organization is full of mediocre leaders.
We’re not talking about truly horrible, toxic leaders—most CEOs can sniff those out. In this context, we’re talking about people who are, all too often, warm bodies occupying leadership positions but not displaying strong leadership qualities consistently. At first blush, mediocre leaders may seem to be less of a threat than toxic leaders, but the negative consequences can often be just as severe.
The Main Characteristics And Impacts Of Mediocre Leadership
Years ago, when I realized mediocre leadership was a problem, I began surveying business leaders on the topic. This research confirmed what I had seen anecdotally: mediocre leaders were everywhere.
Respondents were also more than willing to define mediocre leadership. The top 5 characteristics of mediocre leaders are leaders who are:
- Quick to blame others for setbacks;
- Selfish and only interested in how things affect them;
- Uncivil and cruel;
- Unaware of their incompetence
- Lack initiative.
When I asked people to describe the impact that mediocre leaders had on them, the gravity of the problem came into focus. Respondents told me working for a mediocre leader triggered frustration, anxiety and depression. One told me it was like coming into work each day and “hitting your head against a wall.”
“Mediocre leaders suck the very energy, drive and the can do spirit out of you,” said one respondent.
Okay, so that’s what a mediocre leader looks and sounds like. That still didn’t answer why more organizations weren’t taking action to address the problem.
How And Why Do Organizations Learn To Tolerate Mediocre Leaders
Several excuses come up when senior-most leaders try to explain their tolerance for mediocre leaders.
- Talent shortage. Some chief executives are reluctant to fire a mediocre leader because they don’t think they can find anyone better on the open market.
- Chronic inability to have difficult conversations with middling leaders. Senior executives may know a problem, but they simply don’t want to wade in.
- Not grasping the severity of the problem. Senior executives may look around and know things could improve but not recognize they have a problem with mediocrity.
The leaders who experience that “moment of leadership truth” often assume they have a stronger organizational culture that exists. That could be because they are paying for ineffective leadership development or simply don’t have mechanisms to measure and assess leader performance.
For others, it is a profound disconnect between what they are preaching and how leaders are performing. In other words, they assume wrongly that just by saying “be accountable,” their leaders are willing to be accountable.
Whatever the cause, mediocre leadership has a devastating effect on a company’s performance. As such, it needs to be treated like an urgent problem and not just tolerated, waiting for the mediocre behavior to turn toxic.
Tackling Mediocre Leadership Starts At The Top Of The Organization
- Hold others accountable for high standards of performance. A culture of accountability is built on clear standards and expectations for leaders. You can only confront mediocre leadership if you can show people that what they’re doing and how they’re doing it is falling below those clear expectations.
- Show people that you are willing to make difficult decisions. Truly accountable leaders never shy away from dealing with challenging issues or making tough decisions. They understand procrastinating undermines their ability to lead. Mediocre leaders tolerate underperformance; accountable leaders act immediately to address shortcomings.
- Communicate the company’s strategy. Along with individual expectations, leaders need to be intimately familiar with their organization’s overall business strategy. When leaders at all levels have clarity about what their company is attempting to do and how they can enjoy the clarity of purpose.
- Express optimism about the company and its future. This may seem small, but the most accountable leaders are passionate about their companies and express this enthusiasm daily to their teams. If leaders are not excited about what they are trying to do, then their employees will never be. And that enthusiasm may very well encourage some mediocre leaders to aspire to be more.
- Demonstrate clarity about the external trends and forces impacting the business environment. One of the most important things a leader can do for the people they lead is to help them make sense of the world right now. You can do this through honest and transparent communication that connects the impact of macro forces—industry trends, technological advances, wars, pandemics, human and natural disasters, economic upturns and downturns—on the work they are doing. This will reduce stress and anxiety while helping build resilience.
It’s not hard to see why mediocre leaders are tolerated. When faced with more urgent challenges, it is easy to simply ignore leaders who are performing somewhere in the mushy middle of KPIs.
But it’s that failure to address mediocre leadership that makes this a deep-impact issue. All leaders need to aspire to be more and better, all the time. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Accountability breeds accountability. Which do you want to ripple through your organization?
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