Dysfunctional Leadership: 10 Thinking Habits to Avoid

by  Marcel Schwantes  |  Self Leadership
Dysfunctional Leadership: 10 Thinking Habits to Avoid

Certain aspects of thinking and behaving like a good leader can be tough for many on the leadership development path. Our brain doesn’t develop neuropathways at the flip of a switch. New habits may takes months, if not years, to become second nature.

The best of leaders who grasp concepts like influence, vision, listening, and delegating with relative ease arrive there through hard work and practice. We shift by soliciting feedback, developing self-awareness with humble introspection, and taking responsibility to own up to “our stuff” when “our stuff” is at fault. Remember the old saying, “for every finger you point, there’s three pointing back at you”?

How a leader thinks and acts can no doubt impact a team for better or worse. Better = high-functioning leadership fostered by mutual trust and accountability. Worse = dysfunctional leadership hampered by poor decision making and weak social/emotional intelligence.

Speaking of dysfunctional leadership, let’s take a look at some common distorted thinking patterns that, not only have I personally witnessed in my line of work with my clients, but the literature confirms as dysfunctional leadership. These common thought patterns hold leaders back, destroy their self-esteem, and damage relationships in the workplace.

1. VERY EXTREME—seeing things in black and white, and blowing things out of proportion.
2. VERY BROAD—generalizing from a specific; labeling people rather than their behaviors.
3. VERY NEGATIVE—seeing the glass as half empty and dwelling heavily on the worst possible outcome.
4. VERY DEMANDING—wanting things their way and having expectations that cloud a sense of reality.
5. VERY JUDGMENTAL—condemning others for their shortcomings and being unable to forgive.
6. VERY OBSESSED—getting on a track of being unable to budge or view things differently; persevering about something that is out of their control.
7. VERY CONFUSED—having pictures in their heads that do not match the “real world”; feeling that they don’t get what they think they’re “supposed to” get; having a hard time seeing things without denial, blame and negativity.
8. VERY INTOLERANT—having a need to have things the way they “should be”; finding it difficult to have patience and tolerance for differences that don’t fit their needs and expectations.
9. VERY PERFECTIONISTIC—having a need to be “right” and not make mistakes, as that would mean one is inferior or is a failure; having permeating low self-esteem.
10. “SHOULDING” ON SELF AND OTHERS—placing expectations of how one “should” be, thereby limiting their ability to accept self and others without judgment, leading to negativity and tendency to criticize.

As you consider some of the points above, what resonates with you as a leader? What would you say may be the hardest distorted thinking pattern to overcome, or even accept that it’s dysfunctional? Which may be the easiest?

About The Author

Articles By marcel-schwantes
Marcel Schwantes is principal and founder of Leadership from the Core, a global servant-leadership training and coaching company put on this earth to develop great leaders and healthy work cultures that impact the bottom line. Visit and get a taste!  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Angela  |  18 Mar 2016  |  Reply

I work for someone who shares a couple of the above traits. It is difficult to maintain a high level of energy when dealing with a leader that sees their way as the only way. How can I make them realize the detriment they are doing to the people in the department and across departments?

Marcel  |  19 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Angela, thanks for your comment. Do you have influence with this person? Is there trust in that relationship? Are you a high performer for that individual? If so, “Leading up” is your best bet. Pull the person aside, preferably off site over a casual lunch, and express your feelings without judgment. If you don’t have that luxury, it may not be up to you to initiate. HR should have leadership assessments in place hopefully in low morale environments to begin some performance management.

I would be curious what other leadership experts in this community would have to say.

Hang in there and please send me a personal message through my contact page if you want more options. I’d be glad to help.

Melanie  |  18 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Excellent article! I would love to share this with my leadership but then, I guess I’d be out of a job.

Michelle  |  19 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Great article. As a school administrator, I tried to see myself through those eyes. You should also make a questionnaire or survey that someone could take to see where you fall. That would be an eye opener.

Linden Anne Skjeie  |  21 Mar 2016  |  Reply

There’s not a lot of difference between this and being ‘gaslighted.’ Perhaps what you describe isn’t always done in a malevolent way, but gaslighting certainly is.

DJA  |  21 Mar 2016  |  Reply

7 of the 10 are my boss. As irritating as he can be sometimes, I see through it for what it is–insecurity. At least that’s what I tell myself in order to blow it off instead of blowing up.

Joseph  |  21 Mar 2016  |  Reply

I’m a retired defense engineer still active in my professional organization and learning as much as I can about personal development so I can pass it on to younger professionals. Your statement in the first paragraph that “Our brain doesn’t develop neuropathways at the flip of a switch.” should be framed. I’ve understood that for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve seen someone say it. We are all displaying what’s inside of us, good or bad, and its the internal wiring that we need to change if we want to be more effective. Understanding oneself, deciding what needs to be changed, and working at it until the changed thinking or behavior becomes habit is the process one has to go through. At least that’s what I’ve concluded.

JB  |  22 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Great article, good for helping professions and a great guideline to being a decent human being as well.

MJ  |  22 Mar 2016  |  Reply

The changes in some employees whose attitudes I became acquainted with before they became managers makes them nearly unrecognizable. I’m convinced that the stress of the position often (initially) brings out the worst. Great article…

Mike Davies  |  23 Mar 2016  |  Reply

I have worked for pretty much every one of these archetypes, loved some, loathed others. What makes this list really interesting for me is using it as a mirror to identify when my own behaviours maybe aren’t up to scratch

Basil  |  25 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Leadership is not a “learned” trait. It is a “burned” trait. If one does not risk the immersion of himself in the cauldron of the fire; no amount of advice or training from institutionalized “consultants” will help him. Those who can, Do!; those who can’t, Pontificate and advise. Immersion is a powerful teacher. But don’t just do it, think about it, procrastinate a little, ask a few others of significance and then take a flying leap off the cliff.

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