A business rises or falls with the quality of its leaders. Negative leadership traits, such as a lack of integrity or accountability, can ripple out and blight the whole team. Positive qualities, such as creativity and honesty, can inspire peak performance. Learning to differentiate positive and negative leadership can help you identify which leaders to avoid.

Positive and Negative Leadership Styles

Leadership personality traits are not the same as leadership styles. Negative leadership behaviors are consistently harmful. Positive and negative leadership styles depend partly on circumstances.

  • Under the laissez-faire leadership style, the team leader sets goals and leaves the team to figure out how to reach them. This can work well with creative, independent employees, but inexperienced workers may flounder without more guidance.
  • The autocratic leadership style puts decision-making in the leader's hands; the team does what the boss tells them. This can work well if the job is routine or simple, or if fast decisions are needed, but it stifles creativity and may frustrate employees.
  • Democratic leadership shares decision-making power with the team. This can inspire staffers to perform well, but it's slow and may not work if the organization needs quick decisions. 

A leadership style may be positive in some environments and negative in others. Negative leadership traits such as poor communication skills are a liability in any environment. An autocrat who can't communicate is at a disadvantage, but so is a democratic leader.

Walking the Walk

Good leadership isn't just about training or setting policies, but about actions. Employees learn by example what's acceptable behavior and what's out of bounds.

Suppose the company boss shows negative leadership behaviors such as a lack of integrity. They act unethically, don't tell customers the truth and aren't honest with staff. Even if the company talks about the importance of honesty and ethical behavior, the leader's actions send a clear signal of what's really important.

By contrast, if a leader acts with honesty and integrity, employees will see that. Not only do employees prefer a leader who doesn't lie to them, but the boss's integrity can also inspire them to the same conduct.

Accountability Matters

Accountability, or the lack of it, is another grouping of positive and negative leadership traits. A good leader who makes a mistake takes responsibility for it. Shifting the blame and passing the buck are negative leadership behaviors.

Accountability also includes not taking credit for other people's works. If one of the team members saves the day, a good leader gives them credit for their achievements. Stealing credit not only shows a lack of integrity, but it also discourages the team from doing their best.

Good Communication Skills

Communication skills are another example of positive and negative leadership behaviors. Good leaders know how to communicate plans, policies and ideas. A leader who can't express their goals or their vision can't inspire or instruct their team.

Do They Have Vision?

A leader who is honest and communicates well may still not be a winner if they lack vision. Good leaders have an eye on the future – making the company bigger, building something awesome, training employees to be better. They inspire employees to follow them.

Poor leaders may be perfectly competent, but also complacent. They're happy with the status quo, so why change? They may even be scared at the possibility of moving forward into an unknown future.

Evaluating Leadership Behaviors

Whether you're recruiting management for your company or looking for a mentor for your career, it's important to differentiate positive and negative leadership. You may be able to spot positive or negative leadership behaviors by observing the leader in action, or watching and listening to their team.

  • Does the team support their leader, or constantly complain about how dreadful the leadership is?
  • Does the leader inspire employees, or set them wasting time on unproductive tasks and paperwork?
  • Is the leader available when they're needed or nowhere to be found?
  • Is their feedback useful, or vague and unhelpful?
  • Do they play favorites among their staff?
  • Do they admit when they're wrong?
  • Do they change their mind from day to day, or even hour to hour? That can make it impossible for employees to find a clear direction.