Bad leaders care about who is right. Good leaders care about what is right.” – Simon Sinek


“That’s not what I want.”

The simple statement interrupted the update briefing for an ongoing initiative, one that the staff had been working through for the better part of a year. The initiative, a personal “pet project” of the commander, had been launched with just a broad vision of the outcome. Despite our insistence, the commander had avoided offering any guidance or intent beyond the vision. We were flying blind and doing the best with what we had.

I’d played this game before with leaders who suffered from an inability to frame their ideas, ideas which they insisted on operationalizing without a proper degree of thought. They knew they wanted something but couldn’t put it into words. So, the staff would stumble along to the tune of “I don’t really know what I want, but I’ll tell you when I see it.”

This dysfunction isn’t at all uncommon. It’s a disease that strikes moderately imaginative leaders who seize on their ill-formed ideas and drive organizations to waste resources – primarily manpower and time – in vain attempts to crystalize their visions. The symptoms of the disease are easily diagnosed: an exhausted, frustrated staff that triggers on any mention of the project or initiative on which they’re working.

And it’s just one of a number of leadership diseases.


From the day he stepped into his current role, “Pope Francis has made no secret of his intention to radically reform… the Catholic church.” While the rest of the world has changed, the administrative structures of the church remained “insular, imperious, and bureaucratic.” The self-absorbed, self-obsessed leaders of the church were failing to capture the faith and imagination of new generations.

Shortly after assuming the Papacy, he addressed the leaders of the Roman Curia, the Cardinals and other senior officials tasked with leading the administrative structures of the Catholic church. His message was blunt and direct: a healthy church required healthy leaders. Leaders, like the human body, can be exposed to diseases, temptations that threaten to weaken the effectiveness of the church.

The Pope shared fifteen diseases affecting the leadership of the church, which in turn served as an obstacle to growth and improvement.

  1. Thinking we are immortal, immune, or downright indispensable – an inherent sense of superiority over others.
  2. Excessive busyness – an imbalance between work and life.
  3. Mental (and emotional) petrification – substituting formality for true human connection.
  4. Excessive planning and functionalism – a lack of intuition and adaptiveness.
  5. Poor coordination – an unwillingness to build bridges and break silos.
  6. Leadership Alzheimer’s – a failure to acknowledge the contributions of others.
  7. Rivalry and vainglory – a tendency to celebrate perks and privileges.
  8. Existential schizophrenia – isolating yourself from your people.
  9. Gossiping, grumbling, and back-biting – denigrating the efforts and contributions of others.
  10. Idolizing superiors – exhibiting undue deference and servility.
  11. Indifference to others – a tendency to put your own success ahead of that of others.
  12. Downcast face – failing to inspire joy in others.
  13. Hoarding – a habit of selfishness with recognizing and rewarding others.
  14. Closed circles – embracing parochialism over community.
  15. Extravagance and self-exhibition – an egocentric approach to leadership.

While these largely focus on church leadership, they apply in other professions just as well. We are all susceptible to these diseases, and they can be highly contagious when the organizational culture is already compromised. Leave it to the Pope to call “nope” on behavior of other leaders, while sharing invaluable wisdom and counsel.

The TOP TEN Leadership Diseases

While Pope Francis strikes a chord with his list of leadership diseases, another list held even more impact for me. During a visit to Shrivenham – a center of British military education and training since 1936 – in 2008, I was introduced to the work of Richard Holmes, a prominent educator, historian, and brigadier whose multi-generational influence on military leadership resonated across the armed forces of the United Kingdom. Holmes, who published more than twenty books in his lifetime, had lectured at Sandhurst, Cranfield University, and the Royal Military College of Science – an academic career that spanned some 40 years. During that time, he shared the ten diseases of leadership he had observed over his decades of military service.

1. Lack of moral courage.

Leaders can’t seem to do the right thing, even when they know they should. If it takes any degree of nerve, they don’t have it. Don’t call it the “hard right” over the “easy wrong.” Doing the right thing should never be a choice.

2. Failure to recognize that opposition can be loyal.

Being challenged by a subordinate signals a level of trust that you’ll listen. When you don’t, or when you question their loyalty, you’ve failed them and the organization.

3. Consent and evade.

When you surround yourself with people who agree with you even when they know you’re wrong, you’re going to fail and fail hard. Set the right climate.

4. “You don’t need to know that…”

Information is power. Share it, don’t hoard it.

5. “I’ve made up my mind.”

There’s nothing quite as frustrating as a leader who gets an idea in their head and won’t consider any other opinions or options. Especially when it’s hard-baked into their personality.

6. Looking for the perfect solution.

Perfect is the enemy of good enough. Don’t allow yourself to suffer from indecision or analysis paralysis. Make the best decision with the information you have available to you. Then be flexible in execution.

7. Equating the quality of advice with someone’s position or experience.

Sometimes the least experienced person in the room can provide the freshest perspective. Don’t get fixated on rank or the patches on their sleeves. Keep an open mind.

8. “I’m too busy.”

Busyness and productivity are not the same thing. If you’re always too busy, then you’re missing opportunities… and failing to lead. Learn to delegate.

9. “I can do your job better than you can.”

You probably can. But it’s your responsibility to take the time to build the bench. Learn to teach, coach, and mentor the next generation.

10. Big man, cold shadow.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If you create a negative climate, good luck effecting positive change.

As Holmes was quick to remind his students, identifying these diseases in others is relatively easy. Identifying them in your own behavior might prove a little more challenging.

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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 co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.