How confident are you in your leadership abilities? 

In my 20-plus years of experience in startups -- having filled every position from new hire to CEO -- I've never seen a company reach its potential under anything less than exemplary leadership.

The reverse can be true, of course. Any business can fail regardless of how good the leadership might be. But if your company leadership sucks, your business doesn't stand a chance.

Leadership -- despite the millions of dollars and hours spent coaching it -- isn't that difficult to wrap your brain around. You know it when you see it, and you feel it when you lack it.

In fact, the last person to realize when leadership is starting to deteriorate is usually the leader themselves. Self-understanding can be pretty opaque at the top. But let me save you a few hours in a hotel ballroom listening to a bunch of people who used to lead things you've kind of heard of.

With almost any company, team, or project -- leadership has three distinct phases over time. The trick is getting to the right one and staying there as long as you can.

Know Your Leadership Phases

The good news is that once you come to terms with which leadership phase you're in, it isn't terribly difficult to right your own ship. 

Phase 1

You're new to this particular leadership role. You've been appointed the leader, by yourself or by someone else, but you haven't established leadership credibility. Mistakes and bad decisions will stick to you like glue. How you deal with the fallout is what establishes that credibility that moves you to the next phase.

Phase 2

You've earned your stripes as a leader. Now you have the luxury to make a ton of bad decisions and mistakes in the name of progress. You're pretty much Teflon. If you lead everyone off a cliff, they will blame the cliff. 

Until...

Phase 3

You've been in the leadership role too long, and your credibility as a leader has started to wane. This phase usually arrives after major turnover in the ranks, big changes to the business, or the unchecked build-up of those troublesome mistakes and bad decisions.

In almost every scenario where someone has come to me and said either "I might be a bad leader" or "We might have a bad leader," it boils down to one of these two reasons:

  • The leader is in Phase 1 acting like they've already matriculated into Phase 2
  • The leader has entered Phase 3 and still believes they're in Phase 2.

Know Your Warning Signs

The bad news is, like I said before, a bad leader is usually the last person to see themselves slipping. So here are the most prevalent warning signs of bad leadership that I've seen in others and, truth be told, even in myself.

Low Confidence

I tell you, I feel like all those leadership seminar attendees are drinking all that bad coffee and squirming around in those high-backed chairs because somewhere along the way, they lost the confidence that got them to where they are. I don't know for sure. I've never been to a leadership seminar. I've just seen the flyers and the billboards.

I'm not against these group feel-goods. And who knows, maybe someday I'll speak at one. But when I do, I probably won't be very good at it. Here's what I'd say:

A loss of confidence is easy to identify, once you allow yourself to admit it. Getting it back is much more complex, because it's personal. It's different for everyone. One thing I do know is this: Admitting you've lost your confidence is the first step to getting it back. 

Thank you! My time is up! They're bringing in fresh coffee now.

Giving Up

One of my mentors, and I hope he doesn't read this, called me out of the blue about 15 years ago trying to hire me. I wasn't looking, but I wanted to catch up, so I agreed to lunch. Turns out, the guy I once thought walked on leadership water was now working a thankless middle management job at a faceless corporation.

When I asked him why and how he ended up here, he smiled and said, "This is a great place to hide out." Since that day, which, I might add, scared the crap out of me, I've seen that scenario play out about a dozen or more times with leaders who had taken to hiding out in closed-door offices, or on the road, or behind a committee.

If you find you're fading into the background, it's time to remember why you took a leadership role and get back to the forefront.

Tyrannical Rule

This one is easy. Are you acting like a jerk? There's a reason.

Leadership is rife with stress, and stress does weird things to people. When you're on point and in full Phase 2 leadership mode, stress tends to roll off you. But when you don't yet have the mettle to cope with ever-present impending failure, or you've lost the magic that seemed to make everything go your way, you start lashing out.

Stop. The worse you treat people, the deeper the hole gets. This never fails.

Process Overload

This is hands down the most popular warning sign of bad leadership. 

Good leaders trust themselves, their team, and their process -- in both good and bad times. When bad leaders face bad times, their trust in themselves collapses. This is almost impossible to admit, so they tend to stop trusting their team and their process instead. That's when there are suddenly a bunch of new rules, new processes, new paperwork to fill out, and so on.

It's verification to combat the lack of trust. It's over-communication when the problem is the leader isn't reading or understanding the communication that already exists.

It's not them. It's you.

Whether you're a new leader trying to figure out the ropes, or a veteran leader who has "lost the locker room," the root of the solution is to establish or reestablish trust in yourself and your abilities, which in turn promotes confidence, which in turn encourages a steady hand, which will remind you why you're the leader in the first place.

If you understand which phase you're in, and if you take the time to understand the facts around your decisions, and if you keep making those decisions and owning the results, that's pretty much leadership in a nutshell.

Good night. Drive safe.