Are You a Reckless Leader? Four Damaging Behaviors to Avoid - Improving Leadership

Are You a Reckless Leader? Four Damaging Behaviors to Avoid


On my way into work today, I observed what has become a routine occurrence during my daily commute: reckless driving. One driver in particular caught my attention. I don’t know what he was late for, but he was obviously in a hurry. In an attempt to get ahead of traffic, he kept swerving from lane to lane, accelerating any time there was even the slightest opening. The most entertaining part of the whole affair was that after 10 minutes of working really hard to get ahead of traffic, this driver found himself behind me, even though he started in front and I didn’t change lanes once.

I see this kind of behavior all the time. Aggressive lane changes, tailgaiting, gunning it from one stoplight to the next. While it may feel to those drivers that they are getting to their destination faster, they are actually contributing to the traffic problems and creating an unsafe environment for everyone.

As leaders we can exhibit similar behaviors in our organizations. We want to get things done and make progress, so we push forward in ways that are not helpful. It may feel like we are making progress, despite the chaos around us, but in actuality we may be responsible for much of that chaos.

Here are four reckless leadership behaviors that could be holding your team back.

  1. Impatience – Impatient driving is easily the most common reckless behavior I witness during rush-hour. Drivers tailgating, running red lights, or cutting into tight spaces are all evidence that people don’t like to wait. It can be painful when things are progressing more slowly than we would like.

    This is often the case with leaders too. We have a vision that we want to see become reality and it pains us when progress is too slow. This can lead us into behaviors that are not helpful. We push employees harder than we should. We encourage the use of shortcuts or bending the rules. We take actions that result in negative consequences because we were not patient enough to let things progress at an appropriate rate. Sometimes we need to take a step back and let people and ideas progress at the pace that conditions allow.

  2. Selfish Behavior – Much like the drivers who are only concerned about their own progress, we can fall into the trap as leaders of only caring about our own goals and projects. It’s all too easy to assume that our needs are the most important.

    We understand how important our work is to the success of the organization, and we assume that others should understand it as well. We assume that the work of others is not as important because we don’t understand their motives or impact. This can lead to us prioritizing the success of our own work over that of others.

    Unfortunately, this may not be the best solution for the organization as a whole. A common problem that teams face is pursuing local optimization over global optimization. This means that teams will work to improve their internal work as much as possible, without regard for the impact it has on the whole organization. We don’t like to admit that sometimes the best thing for everyone is if our team picks up some extra work or performs a process that is not ideal from our perspective.

  3. Reactive Behavior – One of the trickiest things to learn as a leader is when to act and when to be patient. There are times when the best course of action is to address problems quickly and decisively, and other times when it is more important to stay the course.

    The driver who ended up behind me despite his best efforts is an example of someone who would have benefited from being less reactive. If he had just been patient, he would have made more progress and saved himself a lot of effort and stress. Instead, he chose to react to every small opening that appeared or slow-down in traffic and it ended up hurting his efforts to move forward.

    As a leader, if you find yourself switching your focus from one project or crisis to the next before the previous one has been settled, you are likely being too reactive. You could be unintentionally impeding the progress of your team and preventing them from actually accomplishing their goals. If this behavior continues, it can also contribute to the damaging Flavor-of-the-Month mentality.

  4. Short Term Thinking – What is your priority when you make decisions? When drivers exhibit risky behaviors, they are typically choosing to prioritize short-term goals over more important long-term goals. They are willing to risk their safety and the safety of others to arrive at their destination a little sooner. They are choosing to increase the risk of long-term consequences for the chance at a short-term gain.

    As leaders, we have many opportunities to make similar trade-offs. Are we sacrificing the long-term success of our teams to gain short-term success? Are you chasing quarterly targets, daily quotas, or arbitrary deadlines at the expense of long-term success or employee well-being? Are your decisions or behaviors encouraging your team to make similar trade-offs? We need to always be aware of our motivations and make sure we are prioritizing the right goals and actions.

If you or anyone on your team is exhibiting these tendencies, the performance of your team will suffer, just as reckless drivers contribute to traffic congestion.

However, there are ways to combat this problem. One man, William Beaty, is doing what he can to reduce traffic congestion as described in this Wall Street Journal Article. By exhibiting behaviors that reduce, rather than cause congestion, he can have a dramatic impact on the traffic around him. Many of these behaviors are the opposite of those identified above.

We can have the same impact in our organizations. By recognizing our tendencies, we can avoid these damaging behaviors and keep our teams running smoothly.

Have you seen any of these behaviors in your organization? What are you going to do differently to make sure you are not a reckless leader?

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Justin Self

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