We had a problem. As the chief of staff and I discussed it in his office, I commented on my frustration with the source of that problem, an officer who had managed to put himself “between a rock and a hard place.” It was a complicated mix of legal, personal, and professional issues that were inextricably intertwined, and the officer had resisted any efforts to help him “unscrew himself” before it all boiled over.

“Watch how I handle this,” the chief said. “He’s a combat arms officer. You have to yell at them to get your point across.”

The officer came into the office and proceeded to drop into one of the oversized chairs. The chief immediately started in on him, first for failing to show respect when he entered the room and second for creating the mess we were dealing with. The officer crossed his arms. The chief continued, berating him loudly for failing to follow a series of direct orders issued to him earlier that week. The officer slouched deeper into the chair. By this point, the chief was screaming and the officer’s only response was to roll his eyes.

“Get the (expletive) out of my office,” the chief yelled.

Now the chief shared my frustration. Yelling hadn’t solved anything, and the look of satisfaction on the officer’s face as he left the office told me everything I needed to know. I was reminded of something one of my warrant officers has told me years before, “Never let ‘em hear you yell.” If you have to raise your voice in anger to lead people, you’re doing it wrong.

Leadership By the NUmbers

Leadership is the domain of listicles. As an Army ROTC cadet in the 80s, I carried a well-worn copy of FM 22-100 in a three-ring binder, the service’s keystone doctrine for leadership. That volume included the first list of leadership principles I encountered, the eleven fundamental principles that had first been codified in the 1951 edition of FM 22-10, the Army’s inaugural leadership field manual. Those principles, derived from a 1948 leadership study, were ingrained on me by the time I commissioned as a second lieutenant.

In the years since, I’ve discovered countless lists of leadership principles. Amazon maintains a list of 16 leadership principles. Leadership guru John Maxwell emphasizes his own list of 10 principles. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, espoused his list of 8 rules of leadership. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, widely shared his own 13 rules of leadership. No matter where you look, you can find principles, tenets, rules, and lessons on leadership. What you do with them is up to you.

THE Other Principles

If there are lists of principles for effective, genuine, purposeful, and any variety of leadership, there should also be a list of principles for ineffective, ingenuine, non-purposeful, or similar flavors of bad leadership. If people don’t take the former to heart, maybe the latter will help them see the errors of their ways. We can only hope.

So, where do you start? How do you define the principles of ineffective leadership? Let’s give it a shot.

1. Hold random meetings.

There’s no better way to remind people that you’re in charge than by calling them all together to remind them. You don’t need a good reason. You’re the boss.

2. Delegate and disappear.

Why should you be bothered with overseeing the progress of a task, regardless of how important it might be? You have more other things to do. Better to wait until the deadline to check in.

3. Withhold knowledge.

If your subordinates needed to know what you know, they’d be leading instead of following. It makes sense, right? Besides, withholding knowledge gives you sort of a McCarthy-esque aura of mystery.

4. Delegate responsibility not authority.

You’re the key decision maker around here, that’s why you’re in charge. When you delegate a task, ensure that subordinates have to come back to you for every minor detail. It reinforces your role as their leader while reminding them how insightful you are.

5. Spread the blame.

If someone makes a mistake or your team fails to execute an assigned task, it’s not on you. You delegate responsibility freely, and people need to understand that the buck stops with them. They’re expendable.

6. Embrace indecisiveness.

Subordinates love a leader who waits until the last possible moment to make a decision. It’s very Sun Tzu-ian in nature, something about indecisiveness being the key to surprise. It was in a meme you saw on Facebook.

7. Never do something yourself you can order someone else to do.

You’re in charge for a reason. If you were meant to do common work, you wouldn’t be in a leadership position. Remember the British Army adage: “Lift with your troops, not your back.”

8. Empower others through minimal guidance.

Nothing spurs creativity like a genuine lack of direction and intent. And if the end result isn’t what you want, you just invoke Principle #5.

9. Wield your moods like a broadsword.

A fundamental tenet of leadership is to always keep your people guessing. Nothing accomplishes that like bizarre, unpredictable mood patterns. When someone approaches you, they don’t know whether they’re going to encounter Mother Teresa or Charles Manson.

10. Yell

Screaming at people is an underrated and undervalued leadership skill. Screaming is a powerful motivational tool, a way to elevate a dialog with raw, uncontrolled emotion. Add random spit globules for emphasis. The results will astound you.

Clearly, these aren’t the only principles of ineffective leadership, but they provide a foundation to build on. And chances are that you read each one of those with a particular face in mind. Funny how that works.


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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.