15 Ways to Be a Lousy CEO

Marissa Levin
Marissa Levin
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Leadership isn’t just about knowing how to do the right things. It’s also about being hyper-aware of behaviors that can quickly alienate your employees and bring down your organization.

In a position of leadership, everything you do counts. All eyes are on you, even when you aren’t there. Employees feel your presence throughout the day because you set the tone.

This is what it means to be a leader – to be aware of how your actions and decisions impact others even when you are physically absent.

My 17 years of  business leadership have taught me 15 ways how to fail at leadership (in random order):

1: Take your employees for granted.  Always remember they have a choice. Always remember your vision is empty without great employees behind it. A leader can never say thank-you too much.

2: Ignore the processes your team has worked so hard to establish. You wanted a company? Well, now you have one. Respect the company by following the processes that your employees implemented to make your organization as efficient, productive, profitable, and positive as possible. For example, don’t circumvent a chain of command to satisfy a personal requirement. Just because you sign their paychecks doesn’t mean your employees should jump when you tell them to. Respect the process.

3: Play favorites. Keep in mind that everyone in your organization is essential to fulfilling the mission. Employees watch your interaction with others. Everything counts.

4: Lead with emotion. Impetuous, rash decisions are rarely well-received. No whining, complaining, or temper tantrums allowed – especially from the owner.

5: Hoard the decision-making process/refuse to delegate.  Trust your people. That’s why you have them. Empower them to make decisions, take action, and elevate their skillset.  If you try to own everything, things will fall through the cracks and nothing will work out well.

6: Have your mind made up before listening to input. Few things are as insulting and demoralizing as walking into a room, knowing no one will take your opinion into consideration. One of the greatest gifts about owning a company is to be surrounded by super-intelligent people who can teach you a lot. Every day I learn new ideas and discover better ways to run a business from my employees. Be a knowledge sponge.

7: Interrupt. Your employees are busy, so respect their time. If you need to see them, schedule time with them. Your needs do not necessarily take precedence over their immediate priorities.

8: Assume employees are in the loop – or just don’t care if they are. Just because you have your finger on the pulse of everything going on doesn’t mean others do. In most organizations, employees are head down focusing on their responsibilities. Make an effort to loop everyone into what’s happening across the company so they feel connected to everyone else. One of the tools a company can use to foster daily collaborative communication is Yammer (www.yammer.com). However, this doesn’t replace the CEO’s communication.  

9: Make it all about you. Newsflash: All of those contracts coming in the door? Not because of you. Share the wealth and the congratulations. On the flip side, if things are stressful for you at the office, chances are they are stressful for everyone else. Stay tuned to the overall vibe of the office and stay engaged accordingly.

10: Be a hypocrite.  Walk the walk. For example, if you have a flexible scheduling policy, it’s not in place just to benefit you. It’s there to accommodate others as well. What applies to you applies to your employees – assuming they are performing.

11: Force new hire decisions without employee input and expect them to blindly embrace them. Want people to work well together? Give them input into new hires and team formations. Forcing new hires on a team without any buy-in is a shortcut to personnel problems. The fact that your friend’s cousin’s daughter is graduating and doesn’t have a job is irrelevant. You’re running a company, and every employee is depending on everyone else to deliver.

12: Tell them you support “innovation” but then penalize them for trial-and-error. Innovation is a nice buzzword. Many companies say they support it, but do their cultures allow for failure? Failure is the flip-side of innovation. Progress doesn’t occur without risk; innovation doesn’t happen without mistakes. How well does your culture embrace trial-and error?

13: Reduce their value down to billable time.  Employees know the C-suite is tracking their billability. They want to remain billable and gainfully employed. However, their contributions aren’t solely defined by this one aspect. Employees bring a lot more value than just profitability.

14: “Empower” them without clearly established processes to follow.  To empower doesn’t mean letting employees do what they want to do, and then penalizing them for making mistakes. It means giving them the freedom to make decisions and take action after they’ve received clear direction. For example, our HR Generalist wanted to switch benefits partners. Our previous partner did not give her the support she personally needed. I empowered her to make the change with the understanding that she was fully responsible for the success of the new relationship.

15: Hold them “accountable” without clearly defined metrics and expectations, or for decisions you made in a vacuum. “Accountability” is also a nice buzzword.  To hold employees accountable, you must provide them performance metrics, along with processes to achieve them. For example, we have a Project Management Office (PMO) which runs every project through a standardized process. All PM’s are PMP-certified. All must present project management reports on all open projects twice a month, using the same process, templates, and metrics. Strong accountability backed by strong processes. Also, if you make a unilateral decision, you have no one else to blame if it backfires. Good leaders don’t hold others accountable for poor decisions.

Effective leadership requires strong self awareness. The more self-knowledge you have of your interactions and how your behavior affects others, the stronger your organization will be.  Best of luck with your self-reflection!


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