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The Weak Leader Litmus Test
--and What to Do If You're One

by Karl Walinskas

Ladies and gentlemen, the Peter Principle is alive and well in American business today. Often the biggest resume requirement for obtaining a position in management is to be completely devoid of people and communications skills. I know, that's harsh, but that's the way it is in many companies that I see today.

Being selected as the Chosen One at a company is great for the new manager, especially for his wallet, but it can have a devastating effect on the organization. Productivity drops off to near nothing, employee morale sinks like an anchor, and profits evaporate under your very eyes. Management tracks a lot of data and issues a stack of memos like they were born for the job, but they couldn't lead an army of fire ants to a picnic held by the American Crumb Association. The managers are weak in the leadership department, and chaos ensues. What's really scary is that these traits exist just as much in established managers, people firmly entrenched in their positions and riding it out until they get their gold watch.

Here is the 5-point litmus test to spot a weak manager, a leader in name but not in deed. Does your strip stay blue once you immerse yourself in the test? Let's hope so. You can overcome demonstrating one, maybe even two, of these qualities; more than that, start constructing your safety net now, because your team's going to fall.

1. Lives in the past. Managers in the lower talent quartile constantly reminisce about the old days, when the people worked harder for less, when we didn't have this damn technology to complicate things, and global competition only occurred every four years in a place like Innsbruck, Austria at the Olympic games. They long for the simpler times, and spend an inordinate amount of time telling tales of how it used to be.

Are you living in the past? Get on with your life. I'm not suggesting ignoring past greatness or the principles that made it possible, but the tactics you engage to manage these days need to be resilient, flexible. People aren't motivated by the same things anymore. Money doesn't govern all behavior, and job security in today's human capital marketplace just ain't the anchor it once was. People like hearing about the future, and the only way your company can profit is to plan for it and then eagerly anticipate its arrival.

2. Lack of risk taking. Don't rock the boat. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Spineless managers say these phrases and others like them-a lot. What's worse, they believe them. The status quo is great, and they'll fight to keep things the same. New ideas from employees and colleagues are scrutinized for the possible negative outcomes. These so-called leaders don't see possibility in new ways of thinking, they imagine the danger that may occur. Their managerial careers are governed by fear and shrinking, not expanding, their comfort zones. Decisions are most often made based on minutia rather than important possible consequences, like not hiring an otherwise superb employee because the janitor might get jealous. Many of these token leaders don't even realize they have this character deficit. One of these guys will steal second base, provided his foot is nailed to first. This symptom is also manifested in punishing subordinates for minor mistakes, most of which are necessary to the learning process and to move the company forward.

If you find yourself in this group, start by taking baby steps. Risk taking is a skill that needs to be practiced to become comfortable. Take a chance on a new initiative where the downside risk isn't so bad (there HAS to be some downside, or it's not a risk, is it?). See what happens. Work your way up to leading by taking larger and larger calculated risks with higher returns. I'm not suggesting carelessness here, but as you move up the risk-taking curve, your skill at hedging you bets and creating winners from you decisions will improve. Your company can't move forward residing in the status quo, so this one is critical to future success.

3. Demands rather than earns respect. Strong leaders never have to remind people of their title. Their subordinates, peers and customers know who they are. General Schwarzkopf didn't have to keep telling the troops he was their leader, they already knew it. Respect like that is earned through deeds and the example that a leader sets. By contrast, weak leaders revel in telling other people, especially subordinates, their titles. The feeble leader's business card has an impressive title after the name, often using the word "Executive" somewhere in the phrase, as if the rest of us don't know that a Vice President is an executive. Because respect hasn't been earned, this bunch gets challenged frequently and their only way to assure victory is to pull rank.

The difference between a leader who has forced followers and one who has a willing, enthusiastic support team is the difference between a mackerel and a tiger shark. If you find yourself needing to continually justify what your position in the company is, you're the mackerel. The keys to earning respect and loyalty with the troops are many, but here are a few:

Set a congruent example; practice what you preach. Don't ask employees to do what you wouldn't be willing to do.

Pass along credit to employees, even if their involvement was marginal compared to yours. Nobody likes a glory-hounding boss who is perceived as someone who takes credit for other people's accomplishments.

Actually provide a vision for the organization, which leads us to weak leader test number 4…

4. Vision-less. By very definition a leader needs two things in order to exist. The first is followers, and we've covered that. The second is a direction, somewhere to take the followers. Thousands of managers in modern business miss the mark here, wandering aimlessly through life, rolling with the punches. How do you spot the vision-less manager? Ask her, "What's your vision for the future of your department, division, etc?" If an immediate answer doesn't follow, summed up in one clear, distinct sentence, you've found an imposter. If she takes out her business card, flips it over and reads the company mission statement, strike two.

I'm not suggesting that managers ignore the overall company mission. Far from it, but each individual person who wants to lead must have a vision that sets the direction for those in his domain. That should be supportive of, but not exactly a repeat of the entire organization's mission. People want a purpose to help give their work meaning, something to strive for. If they don't get it from management, it's up to chance that they'll find an empowering vision somewhere else. Managers need to figure out what they want from the organization for the future, condense it down to something clear, and beat the drum consistently so that every employee knows it by heart.

5. No follow-through. Effective leaders demand and get results for the major initiatives that they want to implement, often by the power of their own personalities. If a manager launches an event that needs care and feeding, then abandons it the next time he reads a business book on a trans-continental flight, he is wishy-washy and ineffective. This coward doesn't have the courage to follow his convictions about what is right for the business, so the direction of the group is set by what's hot-the flavor of the month. Look for this symptom too-a manager who aborts a project at the first sign of trouble, not recognizing the opportunity and success that lies beyond the wall of failure. This occurs every day, where the company accountant brings a report into the big cheese's office that shows red ink at the start of a project. The manager then thanks the bean counter and withdraws support for the change, which heretofore was touted as the "strategic paradigm shift for the organization, critical to our future success." Hogwash!

There is an old skiers proverb, "No guts no glory, no falls no…", well, you get it. Staying the course through tough times demonstrates character strength and true leadership to those around you. Maybe you're thinking, "Well, General Custer had courage, and look where it got him." No, Custer was stupid, ignoring the evidence before him and disregarding warnings from trusted advisors in the pursuit of personal glory. Know the problem, know the game plan that you're going to follow, and know the reasonable effects that can stem from the change, including initial red ink, then make a decision and stick to it.

Your job now is to go through your organization on a weak manager safari, finding those who aren't leading but merely existing and costing the company dearly. If you're one of them, now you know. Once identified, you can help them develop, re-assign the lost causes, or ignore the problem altogether. So what's it going to be?

Karl Walinskas is the CEO of Smart Company Growth, a business development and cost management consulting firm for small to mid-size enterprises.  He has made a career of leading, inspiring and raising the game of small business people.  He is author of numerous articles and the Smart Blog on leadership, business communication, sales & service, public speaking and virtual business and Getting Connected Through Exceptional Leadership, available in the Smart Shop,, or Barnes&  He can be reached at

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