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Michael Lisagor
Management coach and writer
Bainbridge Island, Washington
Very helpful
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The five habits of highly incompetent leaders

Based on hundreds of organizational interviews, my own work experience and an overly stimulated imagination, here are five habits of highly incompetent leaders (and clients) and how to deal with them.
Written Dec 31, 2008, read 15207 times since then.


I have a strong aversion to chain emails. Especially the ones that say I'll sprout something terrible like a second head unless I forward the message to ten of my friends. Still, I urge you to send the web link for this article to ten of your neediest business peers or co-workers; it may be their only hope! As for the head thing - no promises!

Based on hundreds of organizational interviews, my own work experience and an overly stimulated imagination, here are five habits of highly incompetent managers and how to deal with these individuals.

Avoids making decisions. There is a time to self-reflect and gather information. There is also a time to fish or cut bait. This individual's inability to reach a timely conclusion drives you crazy and contributes to organizational malaise. Not unusual for this type of person to avoid putting anything in writing. So, you should document any verbal direction and email it back to them for verification.

Treats staff or vendors like personal servants. Stuck in a bygone era, these managers have an over inflated sense of importance and a lack of respect for who they perceive to be subordinates. This style might work successfully on a pirate ship but is not a motivating influence in modern organizations. Best to disconnect your phone to avoid their midnight phone calls and lock your office door to hide from late Friday assignments due on Monday morning. Better yet...move to another state.

Is too politically motivated. At the top of this individual's agenda is pleasing upper management or shareholders or the board of directors or their mother-in-law! It comes before everything else including making the right decisions. Often collects facts only to ignore them or refuses to listen to bad news. Also has a difficult time staying on target or saying no to out of scope work. Avoids conflict by saying yes to everything instead of acting as a filter to prevent subordinate burnout. Deal with this manager or client by regularly presenting a list of your tasks and how many you can accomplish within your resource restraints. Wait for a prioritization or make your own.

Hides true project status. The bane of most complex projects, this manager thinks risk avoidance means to only report the news their superiors or key stakeholders want to hear. So, everything is always on schedule and within budget and everyone is happy - until everything and everyone isn't. Then it's time to blame others. The only cure, other than elective backbone implant  surgery, is to carefully document the correct project status and keep on chugging.

Is technically proficient but people impaired. Beware technical experts with poor people skills. Rather than admit to a lack of management acumen, these managers accept ever increasing levels of responsibility without the necessary training. Their compensation and stature is inversely related to the number of subordinates who enjoy working for them. These managers wallow in the details when they should concentrate on the bigger management issues. Dealing with this kind of person will be a wonderful learning experience about how not to treat your staff when you get promoted.

Learn more about the author, Michael Lisagor.

Comment on this article

  • residential & commercial realtors 
Seattle, Washington 
Reba Haas
    Posted by Reba Haas, Seattle, Washington | Dec 31, 2008

    Good heavens, you really have hit many nails on the head with this one. I was able to recall a few of my old corporate contacts while reading this post. Very funny and perhaps a good list for 2009 of what NOT to do!

  • Ghost Writer/Blogger 
Los Angeles, California 
Terra  Paley
    Posted by Terra Paley, Los Angeles, California | Jan 03, 2009

    This is very funny, Rebecca is right. It reminds me of so many people I know or have met.

    I am sure we all know managers/CEOs with at least two of these behaviors. Let's not limit it to corporations. My brief consulting job at a federal agency cracked me up. My "unit" leaders clearly displayed all five behavior traits. Plus, they jealously guarded all their secrets from the public. Personal idealism became public policy--no kidding, it was very scary!

  • Fund Raising Professional 
San Diego, California 
Dan Montoya
    Posted by Dan Montoya, San Diego, California | Jan 04, 2009

    Michael: Thanks for sharing this. There are so many leaders out there that have no clue on how to manage their people and are too busy being yes men and women.

    The sad thing is that these people have no clue on how their people feel about them. I am so surprised that these bogus leaders actually make it near the top.

  • Management coach and writer 
Bainbridge Island, Washington 
Michael Lisagor
    Posted by Michael Lisagor, Bainbridge Island, Washington | Jan 05, 2009

    Wish I could disagree with you both! But, it is the sad truth. I've coached managers in over 60 government agencies and companies for the last ten years and people skills, in particular, are sorely lacking. On a positive note...this phenomena does provide me continued job security! :-)

  • Artist/Animator 
Shoreline, Washington 
Galadriel Liceaga
    Posted by Galadriel Liceaga, Shoreline, Washington | Jan 06, 2009

    Thanks! These are so obvious to some of us- (usually those who have suffered at the hands of these management types) and such a way of life for others. This is a great check list of things to assess and avoid for any new manager, and many experienced others!

  • Life, Prosperity, and Small Business Coach. Author. Speaker. Trainer. Singer/Songwriter. 
Seattle, Washington 
Kate Phillips
    Posted by Kate Phillips, Seattle, Washington | Jan 06, 2009

    Great article Michael, Thanks!

    I've also met the "good with people but technically impaired" leaders. Everyone loves 'em, but they can't get the job done!

  • Management coach and writer 
Bainbridge Island, Washington 
Michael Lisagor
    Posted by Michael Lisagor, Bainbridge Island, Washington | Jan 20, 2009

    Kate - me, too! These folks need to understand the importance of surrounding themselves with technical experts and then respecting and LISTENING TO THEM! Funny how much of this comes down on both sides to the importance of listening with an open mind and then being decisive. I guess if it was easy, I'd be out of business! :-)