"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

You have probably heard some version of this quote, “If you've never tasted a bad apple, you would never appreciate a good one." Our last Tracey's Takeaways article, written by Kim Christiansen, NRECA's managing director, governance and business strategy, focused on five foundational characteristics of a great leader. This one focuses on what the opposite of a great leader looks like and offers some tips for how to avoid being an “un-leader."

Respect for Others: A great leader shows appreciation and practices humility.

An un-leader leads with ego. He believes leaders must always project strength and have all the answers. Problems are always someone else's fault and successes are all his alone. The un-leader is one who must put himself at the center of all decision-making. This leadership style focuses on maintaining control and projecting confidence.

The un-leader equates being humble or vulnerable with being “weak." Actually, it takes courage to admit that you need help. We all do at some point in our lives. That makes us human. And what people want is a leader who is real and authentic, because that is someone they can relate to.

If the idea of admitting you need help makes you cringe, consider this: How open do you think your team will be to share their mistakes if they have never heard you admit to one? Are they likely to come forward with a problem if you would never accept any responsibility for one? And why would this un-leader's team strive for greatness if only the top dog gets any credit? Mediocrity and covering up are what this type of leadership can breed.

Communication: A great leader stresses communication.

An un-leader has communication with others all mixed up. She talks when she should listen, remains silent when she shouldn't, and cannot articulate clear expectations or offer constructive feedback. Another hallmark of the un-leader? They don't ask many questions. (See the previous section: They have all the answers anyway, so why ask?)

Here's a simple technique to avoid the trap of talking when you should be listening, it's called WAIT, which stands for Why Am I Talking? This can help you stop and reflect on why you're sharing and what you might be missing because you are not asking for others' input.

Research by Gallup on employee engagement suggests that “setting clear expectations" may be the most foundational element of engagement. With clarity of knowing what they are to do, a team is motivated. Contrast that with a team that lacks focus or even wastes time on the wrong things because their charge is unclear. This is not a team that can drive your cooperative forward.

Trust: A great leader understands and cultivates trust.

To an un-leader trust is a one-way street. Trust him, always, but expect as a subordinate to be met with skepticism. Don't expect him to give up control either.

The un-leader may struggle with establishing and maintaining trust for several reasons. First, their inability to delegate and cede control to others sends a clear signal that the only person they trust is themselves. Only they know the “right" way to get something done. Second, those who disagree or dare to offer a different perspective are belittled or ignored, or worse yet, punished. Third, and maybe even more likely, is that the un-leader's words and actions simply don't match up. This inconsistency creates doubt that can lead to outright distrust.

Once broken, trust is hard to repair. But here are a couple of things you can do:

  • Acknowledge that you were wrong or made a poor decision.
  • Say I'm sorry and mean it.
  • Ask for your team's help and then let them.

Rebuilding trust takes time. When your words match your actions consistently over time, your team will get the picture that you mean what you say and say what you will do.

Innovation: A great leader encourages and practices innovation.

An un-leader lacks imagination and a vision of the future. She is satisfied with the status quo. An un-leader uses phrases like, “we've always done it that way" and “if it ain't broke, don't fix it." In an earlier Tracey's Takeaways, I wrote about the importance of being open-minded and how engaging in close-minded behaviors (often inadvertently) can squelch innovation in our teams.

If an idea sounds impractical to you, don't be the un-leader and immediately kill it with statements like “that will never work" or “we tried that before." Instead, practice open-mindedness. Here are some phrases you can use to encourage your team to share their ideas and try new things:

  • What if…
  • Tell me more…
  • Help me understand…
  • Why don't we test/pilot that and see how it goes?

Continuous Self-Improvement: A great leader works at becoming a better leader.

An un-leader cannot improve if he does not acknowledge his shortcomings. An un-leader doesn't engage in self-examination and reflection and dismisses criticism. As a result he also fails to see how his flaws impact others.

A great first step for avoiding being an un-leader is to be open to learning more about yourself. If you have never taken a Myers-Briggs type indicator or DISC self-assessment, those are good places to start. CliftonStrengths is another. An emotional intelligence assessment can provide helpful insight that goes well beyond leadership.

The fact that you are even reading this article indicates you have the desire to a better leader. I encourage you to participate in our upcoming two-part web conference series on The Five Foundations of Leadership (Nov. 4 and 10) for more tips.

Want to learn more? Here are some additional resources for you:

Tracey Steiner is NRECA's senior vice president for education and training. Her 27-year career at NRECA has spanned a variety of roles starting in communications and marketing positions, then 15 years as an attorney focusing on cooperative governance and public policy issues before moving to Education & Training in 2012.