One way is to pay attention to the things they say. If phrases like the following come up often, you’ll know quickly which type you’re dealing with.
1. “We’re Screwed”
“Game over man!” If you ever saw the movie Aliens, you understand that when the leader loses faith—and lets his team know about it—there’s almost no chance of success. (Warning in case you’re playing this at work without headphones: there’s some R-rated language in this clip.)
2. “I’ll Handle it Myself”
In the short-term, maybe a good boss does handle some things herself. In the long term however, she misses out on an opportunity to help someone on her team expand his or her skills and confidence.
3. “I’ll Put it Off Until Later”
Sometimes decisions aren’t ripe. The danger is when leaders find themselves saying things like this because they’re not confident enough to make a decision—or even worse, because they’re simply disorganized procrastinators.
4. “This Is Your Last Warning”
Giving someone a last warning (and with it, an undeserved extra opportunity) is often like taking one extra ski run at the end of a long day on the slopes—likely to lead to trouble. Leaders understand this.
5. “Majority Rules”
Democracy is awesome—when you’re running a country. Ideally however, a team or a business is led by a benevolent dictatorship (and by a leader with the support of the team). Leaders need to make good decisions—and they need to lead.
6. “You’re Fired”
Yes, sometimes you have to let people go—but escalating the decision to the point where you have to utter a dramatic phrase like this is usually a sign of bad leadership.
7. “I Could Care Less”
Besides being grammatically incorrect, a leader who uses this phrase—who suggests that he or she just doesn’t care—has almost certainly lead the team to failure.
8. “That’s Not Your Job”
Members of a team need to know their roles, of course. However, this phrase carries with it the danger that the boss is dismissive, or enforces a sort of “stay-in-your-lane-ism” that discourages employees to take initiative and solve problems.
9. “It’s Your Fault”
Nope. If you’re in a position as a leader when you have to blame someone, it means you failed first.
10. “That’s Good Enough”
In law school at a public university, I had a professor with a habit of saying, “Good enough for government” when he couldn’t explain something. Exceptional leaders aren’t satisfied with simply “good enough.”
11. “I Don’t Have Time”
Sometimes external forces impact your productivity. Often however, a leader’s lack of time is due mostly to that leader’s failure to plan or anticipate.
12. “It’s Too Hard”
Some things are difficult. Some things are off-focus. But when something is worth doing, “it’s too hard” isn’t really something anyone wants to hear a leader say.
13. “It’s Not My Fault”
If you’re a leader, and your team comes up short, it’s your fault.
14. “Not Half-Bad”
Quit it with the passive-aggressive compliments. A true leader takes a stand. Something is either good, or it’s bad. If you want to describe something positively, do so unabashedly.
15. “I Don’t Know Where We’re Going”
A leader who says things like this often telegraphs that he or she has no vision, and no plan. It’s hard to motivate a team to succeed under those circumstances.
16. “We’re Almost as Good”
Almost as good as the competition is usually a recipe for failure (it’s a phrase often followed by, “but cheaper!”). Of course not everything can be done to perfection, but suggesting satisfaction with second-best is usually a losing strategy.
Nobody speaks with perfect diction or confidence, but peppering your speech with “ums” and “uhs” suggests a lack of communication ability. That’s a hard hurdle to overcome as a leader.
It’s just a manner of speech, but a leader who finds himself or herself reassuring people that he or she is being honest or transparent has to ask the question: “Am I afraid I’m often dishonest?”
No, being a boss doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry. What we’re focusing on here is apologizing for things that don’t need apologies—like doing your job as a leader, or else asking others to do their jobs, too.
20. “It’s How We’ve Always Done It”
Sure, sometimes things are working as well as they can—but more often there is room for improvement. Good bosses and leaders are always looking for the chance to do things a little better.
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