Why Most Leaders Are Not Qualified to Lead

Joe Weinlick
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Incompetent bosses are a staple of American pop culture, and their portrayals as clueless toadies and insecure bullies may be surprisingly accurate. Companies frequently award leadership roles to high performers and flatterers who think and behave like senior management, putting otherwise capable teams in the hands of overlords who aren't qualified to motivate or coach fellow employees.

At one time or another, most workers have experienced the confusion and dread of watching their least qualified colleagues get promoted to leadership roles. Bad managers lack the authenticity and influence to build strong relationships, resulting in a demoralized team that resents upper management for being out of touch with the needs of the company. In a 2014 study, Gallup reported that companies pick the wrong managerial candidates 82 percent of the time, even though managers have the greatest impact on employee engagement.

Instead of cultivating and measuring management potential, employers often give leadership roles to employees who sell the most product or land the biggest clients. In this success model, authority over others is a reward for following orders. Senior leaders want results and validate the people who stick to the status quo and deliver exactly what is asked of them, rather than developing the talents of employees who create new solutions and markets. Unfortunately, giving leadership roles to employees who only think inside the box prevents the company from growing. Not to mention, unqualified managers who find themselves surrounded by better qualified candidates usually try to protect their own power by stifling colleagues who put forth innovative ideas.

Companies that promote high performers by default overlook key factors. How did the employee achieve good results? Was the success a team or individual effort? Can a high performer succeed with a new set of responsibilities? In most cases, a leadership role requires an entirely different set of skills than an employee's previous position. Granting a promotion without assessing the person's capacity for leadership reduces the role to a mere transaction. Pay your dues or suck up to the right people, and you get the job. However, some high performers get good results through unethical or cutthroat methods, while others take credit for teammates' work and struggle on their own. Many are experts at their current jobs, but lack the imagination, authority and communication skills to lead others.

While unqualified leaders gain authority from titles, successful leaders earn authority by establishing mutual trust and accountability among colleagues. They encourage risk-taking, productive conflict and individual career development, and they inspire confidence by being assertive and unbiased. Employers are doomed to advance the wrong people if they don't distinguish promotions from rewards. Promotions should be based on demonstrated ability to excel in higher-level jobs because the employee has already proven himself qualified by taking on greater responsibility. Employers stand a better chance of protecting the company's future if they promote the majority of high performers to senior specialist and support positions while reserving leadership roles for employees who have the skills and strong track record to back up their authority.

With employee engagement decreasing globally, employers should be concerned about the consequences of empowering unqualified workers. Filling leadership roles with confident, communicative and emotionally intelligent people can help employers motivate a detached workforce and solve organizational problems that are holding the company back.


Photo courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Larry S thanks for your great comment., So very true. I have seen that happening also. I am old enough to remember when manager's were always hired based upon who they know, not what they know. And that companies would protect these managers at all costs while the poor employees would be shown to the door if things weren't working out. It was never the manager's fault. I was happy to see companies start to take managers to task and make them accountable for their employees. If the employee failed, so did the manager. And now - it's coming back around again. I, too, received all of my management training/leadership skills through the military (Navy). In the service, the captain goes down with the ship. It's not just the workers who pay for bad performance. I hate to see things going back around to companies protecting bad leaders at all costs. Sure do wish we had a way to stop this insanity from coming back into the workplace!

  • Larry S.
    Larry S.

    Joe, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I'd like to add one to your excellent review. I received my leadership training from the Air Force. Some through formal training and basic experience; something that cannot be taught but must be captured via on-the-job experience as we grow into becoming great leaders. Since I retired from the military (at the rank of field grade officer) a few years ago, I started a new career and I'm almost ready to retire again. One issue that I'm beginning to see return to the work place, irrespective of the career area is the placement of leaders not because of merit but because of who they know. This return is something, in my opinion, that is beginning to raise it's dirty little head again and is high on the return to the work place. Some leaders lead by fear or power and others lead strictly for popularity. In either situation, it's not bad leadership but no leadership at all. Good leaders try to assist their workers in arriving at their highest potential and are not intimidated by their subordinates. "They know and realize that when their subordinate's look good, they look good too." Thanks for the opportunity to respond!

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