Terina Allen is writing here as a contributor to Forbes. She covers careers, professional advancement and leadership development, and is the CEO for ARVis Institute, a strategy, change, performance and human capital consulting firm. In this article Terina takes a look at what leaders say. Out of our mouths come things that expose our hearts, biases and often our weaknesses. Here’s to exposing weak leaders, and hopefully helping them be better.
Regrettably, I know these people. More than likely, you do too. We’ve heard about them, worked with them, worked for them, and some of us (me included) have had the misfortune of hiring them. Weak leaders damage organizational culture. They demoralize high-performing teams, and they create chaotic and toxic work environments where every employee is asked to pay too high a price.
We know them from their behaviors, and we know them for how they speak. Even if you’ve never worked for them, you can learn to spot weak leaders by just listening to how they speak and the phrases they use when communicating with others. If you’re attuned to the messaging, you can easily start to pick them out of the crowd or – better yet – spot the signs during an interview, and remove them from your candidate pool.
These nine phrases immediately expose weak leaders for who they are.
1. Mistakes were made.
This one just makes me cringe inside. There is absolutely nothing – and I do mean nothing – in this statement that assures anyone that any real person will ever be held responsible for making the mistake. When you say “mistakes were made,” you are part of the problem because not only are you refusing to take responsibility for the mistake, you are refusing to even identify what the specific mistake is. The phrase is weak and – if you use it – you look weak. People listening are left thinking that some unknowable, nebulous person somewhere in the universe made mistakes, but you won’t identify exactly who this person is or what was done wrong.
Weak leaders are good at passing the buck. When you use this phrase, you are announcing that there will not be any accountability at all. You are showing everyone that you (as the leader) won’t be taking responsibility either. Instead of using this phrase, I recommend this better approach. You should just bite the bullet and own it. Identify the specific mistake, take ownership for it, and announce what you will do to resolve it.
2. To be honest with you,…
Where do I even start with this one? When you say this, those of us listening can’t help but wonder whether we should assume you are lying to us all the other times when you don’t choose to include this. This is such a useless phrase. When you start with this, we immediately begin questioning your level of integrity and honesty for all prior statements. This phrase creates a distraction. While you want us listening to what you are saying now, we can’t help but wonder why you had to use this phrase in the first place.
This phrase weakens leadership credibility. You’d do better to let people presume that they always get honesty from you with everything you say and just eliminate this phrase completely.
3. He’s just the assistant.
Wow. What a way to show us that you don’t value everyone’s contribution equally. Do you really need to make this person feel small so you can feel large? When you go around saying things like he’s just the assistant or they are only interns or she is just a project manager, your weakness shines through. It becomes clear to everyone listening that you view your colleagues or staff as inferior to you. You show observers that you surely have a huge leadership deficit.
Weak leaders don’t actually care about the people they are supposed to lead. Instead, they care about sucking up to those with coveted offices and titles. They give their attention to those they perceive to have the most power. Weak leaders focus on elevating themselves when the focus should be on elevating the team. The good news here is that as this becomes more obvious to the effective leaders in senior management, weak leaders get fewer and fewer promotional opportunities.
4. I think that… - or - I believe that…
This one is up there with that “to be honest with you” phrase. It immediately diminishes your credibility and weakens the statement that comes after it. Weak leaders hedge on everything. If you want to elicit more respect and authority, speak more confidently. Make people believe that you know what you’re talking about. There is just no need at all to preface your comments with statements like this.
By all means, do your homework, research your topic and evaluate your data. But when you speak, strive to exude confidence, be assertive and take a stand. You only need to make your pronouncements. Instead of saying, “I think that we should hire three more people,” say, “We should hire three more people” and then substantiate the case.
To strengthen your communication, go ahead and leave diminishing starter phrases like “I think that” or “I believe that” out completely.
5. There you go again.
This screams, “I feel so insecure that I need to point out other people’s shortcomings or flaws.” Is this really what you want to be doing? Do you just have to remind people about what they got wrong yesterday?
Leaders are supposed to inspire, develop, encourage and lift up their employees and team members. There is nothing inspiring about this phrase. It actually serves to discourage performance and create more and more insecurities in others. Your colleagues and staff really don’t want or need to hear this from you. Instead, if someone is doing something you have fault with, take the time to develop him. Become interested and have a coaching conversation that leaves the person’s dignity intact.
6. See, I was right.
It’s unbelievable that people still say such things. This makes leaders look weak because it makes them look small.
When others hear this phrase, they just think, “Oh, you petty, petty little person you.” People who make a point to highlight how right they are tend to have a desperate need to feel superior. This highlights that you have low self-esteem or other insecurities. The more superior you need to feel, the weaker you look.
7. That’s not my job.
Are you kidding me? If you are the leader, anything could end up being your job. Yes, you have to be willing to make the coffee. Effective leaders do what needs to be done to accomplish organizational goals and elevate the team. Sure, it might not be part of your job description, but sometimes – just sometimes – you actually might have to get your hands dirty, do the project work or deal with mundane tasks that you thought you had long left behind but are now too good to do.
The moment you announce that it’s not your job, you send two messages that highlight your weaknesses – (1) I think I am better than the people I lead and (2) I’m not truly invested in our collective success. You weaken your role on the team and send the message that you are completely disconnected and take no ownership for what’s happening. Others come to believe that you aren’t invested in the success of the organization so you couldn’t possibly be invested in the success of your team.
8. I’m only doing what I was told to do - or - If it wasn’t for…
You will never look like a boss saying things like “if it wasn’t for Sally, I would approve your vacation time.’ These phrases indicate that you aren’t in command of your work or your decisions. Even if this is the case, you shouldn’t complain about it or announce it to your staff or colleagues. Keep the discussions you have with your superiors private. When you show up with your team, show that you are the leader. The more people see you as a mouthpiece or puppet doing the bidding of another, the weaker they will view you. You might only be doing something because your boss told you to, but it is not to your benefit to gripe about it to your team. Not at all.
Own the decisions you make for your team regardless of whether someone else is actually pulling the strings or calling the shots. I know it can be really challenging, especially in middle management, but effective leaders own their stuff.
Your best move is to debate, dissent and discuss issues with your boss directly. Make the case for what and how you want to do things. Advocate for yourself and your team and learn to persuade others to your perspective. Make proposals and defend them. Do all you can to get the leverage and autonomy you need to call as many shots as you can. But after you leave those meetings, you have to take responsibility for the decisions that were made.
9. We’ve always done it this way - or - We tried that already.
Does a more worn-out, idea-stifling phrase even exist? This is among the worse things you can say to a team of innovative thinkers. Saying this makes you come off as weak, stagnant and lazy. And the more you say it, the more disengaged you make your team. Think about it. You work to hire the best and brightest with amazing creativity and innovative ideas, but then you shut them down by telling them “we’ve always done it this way.” Eventually, you will shut down all the brilliance that you hired them for in the first place.
I recommend you do this instead. Take the time to listen and ask questions. Really try to understand what’s being proposed and why it is being proposed. Maybe, in the end, you don’t do things the new way that’s being recommended, but by listening – really listening – you might be able to make alternative changes that indeed address the challenges that are being brought to you. It’s better to meet your team in the middle rather than not at all.
Weak leaders aren’t actually leaders at all.
I know. I know. I know. The phrase weak leader is an oxymoron. Yes, it should be noted that you can’t truly be a leader and also be weak. Leaders can have weak moments, and they can be vulnerable, but leadership – by its very nature – requires strength, discipline and courage. Also, weak leaders are driven by titles and make it all about them while actual leaders know this:
Leadership is not about titles. It is not about seniority. It is not about status, and it is not about management. Leadership is about power and the ability to know when and how to use it to influence the people around you to do and become more!
With this in mind, a weak leader is distinctly “unleaderly.” Whatever we call these people, let’s all hope we don’t end up working with or for them because it can be seriously detrimental to your mental health, your organization and your career.
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