We spend an incredible amount of time dissecting toxic leadership. We write about it, we talk about it, and we do everything we can to identify and avoid it. But for all our efforts, we focus so much attention on toxicity that we neglect something equally destructive to an organization and its people: incompetent leadership.

In their book, Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience, authors Richard Hughes, Robert Ginnett, and Gordon Curphy focus much of their research on the impact of these leaders on organizations. Unlike toxic leaders – who achieve success by exploiting those around them – incompetent leaders suffer failure from a chronic inability to engage others, build teams, or achieve results through others. Where a toxic leader might drag an organization to new heights (at great cost to others), an incompetent leader will drive an organization to new lows (also at great cost to others). Such leaders may continue to find career success in spite of their own failings, much to the chagrin of those forced to endure their incompetence.

No leader is perfect, but an incompetent leader poses a risk that eclipses imperfection. The hallmarks of their incompetence are difficult to miss, but nonetheless are missed, often misinterpreted for the danger they represent.


As leaders, we are in the business of making decisions. Hard decisions. A good leader embraces this responsibility; a bad leader will struggle to make decisions, possibly even abdicating their decision-making authority. There are any number of reasons why a leader might be indecisive, none of them particularly good for the organization. Indecisive leaders are incapable of taking initiative, meaning opportunity is missed more often than not.

Risk Averse.

A trait often found among indecisive leaders, risk aversion is a crippling attribute that often drives indecisiveness. The amount of risk involved is irrelevant; the risk itself poses a potential threat that overwhelms an incompetent leader. A good leader will embrace risk and use it to create opportunities. For a poor leader, risk aversion is deeply personal, a fear that risk will somehow derail a career or damage a reputation. That fear causes a lesser leader to choose risk avoidance over the greater good it can bring an organization.

Avoids Responsibility.

Whether we like it or not, we own what happens “on our watch.” Leaders who shirk responsibility typically share one or both of the previous negative traits. Rather than view responsibility as inherent to leadership, a poor leader sees it is seen as something that presents risk and to be avoided. Ultimately, this attitude toward responsibility drives indecisiveness and risk aversion in incompetent leaders.

Fears Change.

No one is wedded to the status quo quite like an incompetent leader. Change represents one of two things to a poor leader: a perceived indictment of their own failures as a leader or the possible exposure of their incompetence. The former underpins their approach to leadership while in a position of authority; any change suggests that there is something inherently wrong with the way they’re leading. The latter tends to play out during a transition of authority, as the incompetent leader’s behavior begins to mimic a “This is fine” meme. For a poor leader, change is bad.

Fails to Develop Others.

Probably the greatest disappointment we experience with poor leaders is their failure to develop others. Incompetent leaders are often a product of their own lack of development. Where a good leader will commit to the growth and development of subordinates, a poor leader lacks either the knowledge or the desire to develop others. This absence of development hurts the organization, but does far more harm to the personnel, who over time will fall behind their peers in terms of personal and professional growth.

At its core, much of leading successfully evolves from the calculus of risk and initiative. The Army’s capstone doctrine, Field Manual 3-0, Operations, mentions risk 159 times and initiative another 95. Risk is a potent catalyst that fuels initiative and creates opportunity. In any well-led organization, that calculus is embraced without fail. With an incompetent leader at the helm, that calculus is never realized, initiative never gained, and opportunity a distant fantasy.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.