Do You Have Any of the Four Desires of Dysfunctional Leaders?

In the last blog post, I discussed how I have come to believe that that most people are trying the best that they can.

In the past, I didn’t believe that, especially when it came to dysfunctional leaders. I saw dysfunctional leaders as surely not doing or trying their best.

Like me, you have probably worked with a fair share of leaders who either struggled to lead or were all-out dysfunctional.

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When you think about these leaders you have worked with, do you think they were trying the best that they could?

What I have learned is that, whether effective or dysfunctional or anywhere in between, 99% of leaders are trying the best they can with the skills and resources that they have.

I used to get angry and judgmental when I worked with dysfunctional leaders, but now I just get sad. I get sad because despite them trying their best, what they consider to be “their best” is actually dysfunctional and they don’t have the capacity or self-awareness to realize it.

This has led me to wonder: If effective and dysfunctional leaders are both trying the best that they can, what separates them from each other? What causes one person’s “best” to be effective and another’s dysfunctional?

From the research I have done on mindsets, I believe there is one primary factor that separates effective and dysfunctional leaders, and that is their desires.

Specifically, there are four desires that lead dysfunctional leaders to be dysfunctional (often unknowingly).

Desire to look good

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When a leader is focused on looking good, he/she:

  • Seeks to avoid challenges (things that have a risk of failing)

  • Is willing to throw people under the bus when things go wrong

  • Selects employees that look up to them (“yes men” and “yes women”) instead of people that will push or challenge them

  • Will prefer engaging in self- or organization-promotional opportunities over doing strategic work

It is easy for leaders to fall into this trap of wanting to look good because reputation plays an important role in one’s ability lead and inspire others. But, when leaders value looking good over actually becoming good, it drives them to operate in dysfunctional ways.

Effective leaders are less concerned about looking good and more concerned about having a positive impact on those they lead and the customers they serve. When a leader has a desire to positively impact on others that outweighs a desire to look good, they are more willing to (1) take on challenges, (2) look in the mirror when something goes wrong, (3) select employees they consider to be smarter or more capable than them, and (4) focus on doing work that has a true, deep, and lasting impact.

Desire to be right

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When a leader is focused on being right, he/she:

  • Seeks to have ideas supported

  • Is quick to provide answers

  • Avoids feedback and different perspectives

  • Believes that he/she knows best (unwilling to admit that they are wrong)

  • Interprets disagreements as threats

When leaders are insecure in their leadership, they have a fear of being wrong. Because if they are seen as being wrong, they feel like they will lose power. Thus, some leaders are focused on being right and being seen as the person with all the “right” answers. But, when leaders are focused on being right, they often stifle the voices of others and the deep dialogue that is necessary for optimal decision making.

Effective leaders are less concerned about being right and more concerned about thinking as optimally as possible. In fact, effective leaders often have a deep fear of being wrong. Thus, they are driven to (1) seek out new information and different perspectives, (2) ask questions (as opposed to give answers), (3) seek to understand, (4) believe that they can be wrong, and (5) see disagreements as opportunities to learn and think more effectively.

Desire to avoid problems

When a leader is focused on avoiding problems, he/she:

  • Focuses on what is urgent, not what is important

  • Seeks to maintain the status quo (not rock the boat)

  • Becomes vigilant, often to the point of micromanaging

  • Is unwilling to take the risks that are necessary for success

Sometimes leaders feel that as long as things don’t go wrong under their watch, they are being an effective leader. This leads to what I call “leadership of least resistance.” When leaders are focused on avoiding problems, they head down the path of least resistance. And, we know where that path leads: downhill.

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But, effective leadership is not about avoiding the bad, it is about taking the essential steps to succeed.

Effective leaders focus on what is important, which is obtaining specific goals; and they recognize that in order to do so, they are going to have to anticipate (rather than avoid) problems and take risks. Thus, rather than seek to maintain the status quo, effective leaders seek for attainment. With this attitude, effective leaders are willing to take on challenges and head in a more meaningful direction: uphill.

Desire to do what is best for themselves

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When a leader is focused on doing what is best for him/herself, he/she:

  • Will see and treat others as inferiors

  • Seek the spotlight and limit others time in the spotlight

  • Will be quick to fire and slow to develop

  • Lead primarily through organizational power (authority, rewards, threats of punishments)

For many people, not just leaders, our natural inclination is to look out for #1. When leaders carry this into their leadership, they have a tendency to prioritize their needs over the needs of those they lead. When this happens, leaders often subconsciously seek after the spotlight, step over others, and demonstrate an unwillingness to support and develop those they lead. Ultimately, people come to follow these leaders because they feel compelled to.

Effective leaders, on the other hand, see their position of leadership as a responsibility to look after the needs of those they lead. As such they see others as valuable partners and they seek to serve them in ways that they can excel, even if it means making their own life more challenging. When a leader takes this perspective toward leadership, they often try to ensure that the spotlight shines on others and often reflects any light that gets shown on them. Ultimately, people come to follow these leaders because they want to.

What are your desires?

The four desires discussed here, on the surface, seem natural. Yet, they are at the foundation of dysfunctional leadership. It is my guess that you can see many if not all of these in the dysfunctional leaders that you have worked with. Yet, what is sad is that these dysfunctional leaders were all of the mindset that they were doing their best. They didn’t realize that their largely subconscious desires were causing them to be dysfunctional in their decision making and actions.

Moral of the story, if you want to be a truly effective leader, you need to intentionally break through these seemingly natural desires and instead:

  • Desire to have a positive impact on those you serve (followers and customers)

  • Desire truth and thinking optimally

  • Desire to fulfill specific and meaningful purposes and goals

  • Desire to do what is best for others

If you want to learn what your subconscious desires are, take this free personal leadership assessment.