Do You Stink as a Leader?

Bad bosses can cripple a waste organization.

Unfortunately, chances are a significant percentage of the people reading this article, well, stink as leaders.

Jack Welch, the former chairman/CEO of General Electric and Fortune magazine's Manager of the Century, says businesses today are missing strong leadership. Lee Iacocca, who proved his ability to lead at Ford and Chrysler, recently released his latest book, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” In his review, David Siegfried of Booklist says, “The book is an outspoken take on the pressing need for real leadership in this country.”

Lately, it seems like all the books touting the “secrets of leadership” have been replaced by titles like “Bad Leadership” by Barbara Kellerman, “What Were They Thinking” by Jeffrey Pfeffer and “The No Asshole Rule” by Robert Sutton.

By now, you get the point. We're up to our necks in stinky leaders. So, what can we do about it? How can we measure our progress, and how should we be held accountable?

The Effects of Bad Bosses

In 2002, the Gallup organization studied 300,000 employees across thousands of companies and found that about 80 percent of the workers felt unenthusiastic about their work and believed they were achieving much less than they were capable of. Studies of waste industry workers also have shown that working conditions could be more productive.

The Conference Board, a business research organization, reported that half of employees across all income brackets are dissatisfied with their jobs, with about 25 percent saying they are just “showing up to collect a paycheck.” (By the way, they also said their pay and benefits ranked dead last among their job satisfaction criteria!) Indeed, reported that 78 percent of employees would leave their employer for a better job, and that nearly 50 percent currently are pursuing other opportunities.

A Watson Wyatt Work USA study found that only 39 percent of U.S. employees trust their senior leaders. Moreover, less than one-third of all supervisors and managers are viewed as strong leaders, according to the Conference Board report. Results and success start with trust. Without it, an organization will be left searching for mediocrity at best.

The same Watson Wyatt study also showed that 70 percent of employees claim a poor work/life balance; almost 50 percent feel overworked and overwhelmed. In spite of their sacrifices for the company, promotion policies rank near the bottom of job satisfaction rankings.

The Towers Perrin consulting group says that positive feelings about work translate into improved performance for the company, yet only 31 percent of employees are highly positive while 43 percent are highly negative. The No. 1 reason behind the negativity is a leader's perceived incompetence, followed by workload, a lack of challenge and insufficient recognition.

All of these distressing survey results can be traced to poor leadership.

Being a Good Leader

The first step toward becoming a better boss is to recognize the difference between “good” and “bad” leaders. Let's face it: Leaders with “good” traits sometimes act “badly” and vice-versa. The line separating the best from the worst is sometimes a blurry one. For example, some notable tyrants in world history possessed outstanding leadership skills that they applied to harmful and devastating effect. Also, some well-intentioned executives with textbook leadership traits fall far short of their promise when they cannot apply those traits effectively.

The question is not whether you have leadership capabilities. Rather, it's how you apply that talent that makes the difference.

Consider a leader who implies that his needs come before all others' by reserving the only covered parking space, the one right next to the front door. Or, how about the one who ignores the simple civilities of saying “good morning” when he encounters employees in the elevator or in the hall? Then there is the guy who thinks that his failure to say “please” and “thank you” is excused by the distribution of weekly wages. Pay is important, but showing appreciation inspires performance and mediates against costly turnover.

Subjecting employees to public ridicule, and recurring losses of self-control followed by private apologies also are high on the list of “bad” leadership qualities. Leading through fear and intimidation or allowing employees to behave abrasively because they meet objectives sends a strong negative message about the organization's values. Also, ignoring employees' personal issues screams, “I don't care.”

No doubt, there are legions of successful organizations that get it done without stripping the bark off their people. If you ignore this truth, outstanding performers will be the first to leave, and they will take with them your competitive advantages.

Interestingly, employees are as much to blame for bad leadership as their boss. After all, they put up with shoddy treatment and ineffective management, mostly without objection. They often aren't honest on opinion surveys and withhold critical commentary during the performance review process, which renders both meaningless. Investors and corporate boards may focus on narrow financial interests, which may overshadow qualitative issues. It is hard to resist a bad leader, and oftentimes, it is quite risky. But doing so is the essence of leadership.

Leaders have a responsibility to not only project confidence, but to instill the same into their followers. In this way, they can enhance the opportunity for constructive feedback. They also must make time to stay in touch with the realities of the organization. Reliance on filtered communications from direct reports is not enough.

Take a walk and mix with the masses. Listen to employees' words and observe reactions. Notice whether they are comfortably respectful. Invite informal questions and respond honestly. If you cannot sell your thoughts and ideas, maybe they aren't so good after all. If you don't know something, admit it. Otherwise, your bluff will come shining through at the high cost of your credibility.

Good leaders revel in the talent of others and appreciate that, for the most part, employees are capable of contributing far more than expected. Allowing them to do so encourages creativity and enables organizational advancement. Mentoring enthusiastic followers to success is a rewarding experience on both sides of the equation.

Leadership is situational. No one style is right in every case. Clearly, there are no shortcuts. Leadership is a practice analogous to law and medicines in that the destination point moves away faster than development so that the journey is never finished. We spend our lives polishing the stone.

Mark Twain said, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” A leader's legacy will be measured by the examples you set. Followers will look to you for direction. Make your positive actions and attitude contagious; others will catch them and take your waste firm to new heights of productivity.

Kenneth M. Baylor is a vice president at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services Inc.


Kenneth Baylor will speak at the “You Stink as a Leader” session at WasteExpo on Monday, May 5. The session, part of the Professional Development Track, will run from 1:45 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.