This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Discover Your True North" by Bill George. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What are bad leadership qualities that can ruin your business? What is the common theme in these toxic behaviors that destroy a leader’s potential?
Bill George’s book Discover Your True North claims it’s important that you identify your core purpose and ethics to become an effective and resilient leader. To illustrate the importance of having these guiding principles, George identifies the five qualities that commonly cause leaders to stray from their core purpose and ethics.
Keep reading to learn why these bad leadership qualities are a leader’s worst nightmare.
Qualities Leaders Should Avoid
The common thread in these bad leadership qualities is self-centeredness and excessive pursuit of external rewards like power and money. George writes that by being aware of these potential pitfalls, you can recognize when your leadership is faltering and take corrective action (with your core purpose and values as a guide).
(Shortform note: Resisting egocentric tendencies and materialism may be particularly challenging for leaders after they’ve already achieved substantial success in their industry. In Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday recommends a few tips to avoid losing control of your ego. His advice is: Remain a lifelong student and be open to new knowledge and lessons, don’t be tempted by new opportunities that don’t advance your long-term goal, and be wary of feelings like entitlement that can lead to poor decisions.)
1. Cut-Throat Competitiveness
George writes that when people are willing to manipulate and scheme to advance themselves (also called “Machiavellianism”), they’ll often devolve into paranoia and self-doubt. This is because cut-throat leaders assume that since they desperately clawed their way to the top, there must be someone else with the same mindset scheming to usurp their power. In addition, this type of person might fear deep down that they’re not actually qualified for the position they’ve achieved.
(Shortform note: Psychologists say that some of the causes of Machiavellianism include genetic factors and exposure to manipulative self-advancement in one’s family, the media, or other environments. In addition, people with this personality trait naturally gravitate toward professions such as business, politics, and management, where this kind of behavior often contributes to their success. This suggests that for people predisposed to Machiavellianism, this trait may be particularly difficult to reign in. For others, working in a less competitive environment may be the best way to counteract this tendency.)
2. Lack of Accountability
George explains that when some people get to a position of power, they don’t want to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. Instead, they’ll deny their role in it, blame other team members, and make short-sighted decisions that ultimately lead to their downfall. For example, instead of taking responsibility for a business’s low revenue, a leader lacking accountability might instead lie on reports or expect other people to fix the problem, which could end up making it worse.
In this case, leaders don’t solicit feedback or establish good relationships with their colleagues. George asserts that when leaders self-isolate, it makes them prone to mistakes that could otherwise be avoided. For example, a leader might insist on continuing with a business model that other managers and employees already know from experience doesn’t work. However, since the employees aren’t welcome to share feedback, the leader will unknowingly tank the business.
4. Chasing Promotions
Another common mistake that leaders make is being hyperfocused on climbing the corporate ladder. George warns that this causes leaders to neglect their personal life and other aspects of their well-being, which is ultimately harmful to their mental and physical health. In addition, if leaders move up through the ranks too quickly, they don’t have time to learn important skills and lessons through experience, making them anxious in challenging situations.
(Shortform note: In addition to the downsides that George addresses, some people assert that focusing on promotions isn’t a useful way to exert your energy because it’s not fully in your control. Instead, they recommend focusing on things that are both inherently rewarding and fully in your control, like developing your skills and building good relationships with your colleagues. This advice aligns with George’s recommendation to make sure your work is intrinsically motivating and to intentionally foster positive relationships.)
5. Obsession With External Rewards
Lastly, George says that if leaders become too caught up in seeking the approval of others through wealth, fame, and power, they’ll get stuck in a cycle of always wanting more and being envious of people who seem to have more than they do. This ultimately distracts them from their core purpose, leading to dissatisfaction and potentially unethical behavior.
(Shortform note: Experts suggest that an unhealthy obsession with materialism can arise from cultural messaging through advertisements and other media that equate money with success. For others, materialism may be a response to a feeling of insecurity or inadequacy that stems from a difficult upbringing. To combat this type of behavior, some experts recommend intentionally taking time out of your day to express gratitude for what you have. This elicits a positive emotional response that breaks the cycle of relying on material gain to feel good.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Discover Your True North summary:
- Why being true to yourself is more important than having talent or charm
- Guidelines anyone can follow to become a leader in their organization
- How to identify your purpose and ethics based on your unique experiences