Do you agree with Harvard about the worst mistakes leaders make?

It’s interesting to note that it’s apparently fashionable to regard leadership as glamorous. Maybe that’s the reason most people regard themselves as leaders?

Seems that the fact that leaders are human beings and hence not perfect has been forgotten. Harvard Business School experts held an interesting symposium where they discussed the worst mistakes leaders make. Devote 7 minutes to watch and then let us know if you agree with them.

The following experts participate:

Bill George, Professor, Harvard Business School and former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Medtronic
Evan Wittenberg, Head of Global Leadership Development, Google, Inc.
Dr. Ellen Langer, Professor, Harvard University
Andrew Pettigrew, Professor, Sïad Business School, University of Oxford
Gianpiero Petriglieri, Affiliate Professor of Organizational Behavior, INSEAD
Carl Sloane, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School
Jonathan Doochin, Leadership Institute at Harvard College
Scott Snook, Associate Professor, Harvard Business School and retired Colonel, US Army Corps of Engineers
Daisy Wademan Dowling, Executive Director, Leadership Development at Morgan Stanley

Who, in your opinion, pinpoints the worst mistake a leader can make? Or maybe you agree with more than one of the participants? Or with all of them? Is there anything you would like to add? Will future leaders have a higher success rate if they avoid those mistakes? Do you think it’s glamorous to be a leader? If so, what aspects are glamorous? Are leaders that make huge mistakes and get bad press still glamorous? Or does glamour exit the minute a leader becomes infamous?

Video: Harvard – Picture: Vinoth Chandar

99 thoughts on “Do you agree with Harvard about the worst mistakes leaders make?

  1. As always, I enjoy your postings Catarina and what an interesting line-up.

    We can all have a perspective on this issue and that makes for a really good discourse, bringing together a range of opinions and being able to synthesise these perspectives is much of what leadership should be about.

    Mistakes, crimes, some of the language used here suggests that leaders should never make mistakes but as you said Catarina, they are human. The lessons learned from mistakes are the keystone to good leadership with a capacity to change and develop, to evolve.

      1. I want to agree with you. Every leader, that I can think of current or past has or had
        all of the traits that were pointed out to be undesirable or negative in the video with
        one exception, Jesus Christ.

  2. Hi Catarina,

    I love that you used a video – it is a great way to get a message across isn't it? 🙂 Your line-up of expert opinions about leadership helps add credibility to your message – especially your choice of experts – Harvard Business School experts already carry with them tons of clout (not "Klout").

    It is actually refreshing to hear experts emphasize what makes a good leader and what mistakes leaders make. Leaders should be put in place NOT to stroke their own egos and to make us think what they "know" – that they are perfect! Wrong! As you say, no one is perfect – including those self-proclaimed ones who are given the label of "leader".

    Thanks for sharing your post and valuable opinions!
    My recent post Have Content – Get Video

  3. They all make great points, Catarina – thanks for posting this. I think that Bill George probably best encapsulates it by talking about the disturbing incidence of executives putting their own interests first – above those of the business. Under UK Company Law (and that of many other countries) this is, of course, illegal, but it can sometimes be hard to prove and it certainly does lead to executives showing the other traits mentioned in the clip.

  4. Catarina, this is such a great posting. Leaders who put there self-interest first! It is so true
    and the reason for so many company that collapse especially in Corporate America is "GREED."
    Bernie Maddof as your example he didn't even feel the consequence that he has done, instead
    he blame all those people who invest for there "GREED."
    Also ethical value is so low, remember all those Top Notch executives who were caught in
    such unscrupulous acts as "Leaders" they know that they can abuse their power and need
    not payoff for their crimes. Extreme arrogance in the case of those ENRON leaders who
    cann't admit that they are human and vulnerable to mistakes.

  5. Not sure I agree with you Tim. The charachterisics of a leader and how he/she needs to behave hasn't changed throughout history and never will. However, the issues leaders have to address change all the time. Imagine if Caesar had talked about online crime, for instance. However leaders then as well as now made the mistakes mentioned in the video. Anyway, that's my opinion, right or wrong:-)

  6. I would like to add a true leader needs empathy and ethics. Without those two traits the organization that he or she builds and or manages is like a house of cards. It is destined to fail and collapse. We all experienced the Bank bail-outs and mortgage fiasco, too make my point.
    Not until a cohesive feeling of caring, acceptance and over all honesty permeates through the halls of the organization and or institution positions someone to have the title of a true leader.

    1. Interesting way of looking at mistakes leaders make Anthony. Don't you think the major reason for the bank bailouts and the whole mess the bankers made was that they put their own interest before the company, country and world?

  7. Catarina,

    I firmly believe that the problem lies with the process. Over the past 40 years, the decline in our country can be traced to the process. Instead of the empirical method, we come up with theories and seek data to substantiate our opinion.

    Europe is having the same problem. (Time magazine did a piece on the decline in America and Europe about a week ago.)

    When the EuroCrats change the process for resolving the crisis, they will resolve the crisis. However, as long as they keep bringing experts into the same process, the experts will be of no value.

    Sincerely,

    Slim

    ps.

    I wish I could rid the business and political community of: shared vision; the visioning process; group think; consensus building; and those smiley face key chains that consultants hand out after an empowerment and dignity festival.

    Consensus Building: Group Think Built by a Consultant. 😉 Slim
    My recent post America V. China: The Diplomacy Wars

    1. Good point about the process, Slim. However, the mistakes mentioned in the video have been the same throughout history. Long before the United States existed. So what you express is a slightly different issue:-) i.e not what mistakes leaders make. They will always make the same mistake for the simple reason that once one generation has learnt from its mistakes another takes over that has yet to learn. The mistakes reflect human nature.

  8. Harvard is full of the corporate and moral failures of leadership the faculty warn against. The student body, not the cirriculum or faculty, tends to be driven by personal wealth and lead one another in a hot and cold mega-millions jackpot club at the expense of others in a "wanna smell something gross?" sort of way. We are the only species on the planet that will follow a weak leader, and over-reliance on legacy schools adds to this.

    Ask leaders of American or international military, clergy, non-profits, professional/amateur team sports figures or even over-performing principals in previously-underperforming schools. Ask people in non-profit leadership whose life work is for the betterment of people who cannot in turn materially reward the leader. You'll get what was in the video but also: failure to consider sustainability, succession beyond the period of service, undercapitalization/preparation, failure incorporate others to offset shortcomings or to share credit.

  9. I would say that the greatest mistake a leader can make is to disconnect herself from those she has the privilege to lead. Great leaders have a way of creating a sense of intimacy within their leadership role. A great leader takes the time to remember names, to personally reward great ideas, to make their self available. It's taking a genuine interest not only in the nuts and bolts of the organization but within the humanity of it as well.

    1. Yes Jason that's important. But don't you think the worst mistake a leader can make is to put him/herself before her organisation, country or even world. Would seriously have preferred if the leaders who caused the global economic crisis had forgotten names instead:-) They sure rewarded ideas i.e. financial products so complicated not even the people who invented them fully understood them.

  10. Great video, thanks for posting! Self-awareness is key to great leadership. Constantly reflecting on one's behavior and decisions lays the groundwork for principled leadership. In fact, the world would be a better place if everyday people ascribed to this principle!

  11. Glad you liked the video Lou. It's true that some leaders remain glamorous even after becoming infamous. But they are exceptions i.e. people that were looked up to in the first place. Or maybe in some people's minds it doesn't matter if they have a bad reputation as long as they are in the news?

  12. Hi Katerina

    Thank you for the posting, my wife and i really identified with the comments about leadership mistakes from past and current experience in leading and following.The self reflective advice is key and whilst understood is actually quite hard to instill.Anyone who has developed techniques,tips,tools for this info would be gratefully received

    Regards

    Chris Ashman

  13. Hi Catarina, and all others.
    As usual, a great question and that sharp spirit of yours agitating our minds with this food for thoughts!
    I see a Leader as someone who, by his action, deserves to have followers; so that it happens, people need to trust her/him. If you review all those opinions that this video features you'll always see trust at the centre of what's being said. Just ask the question: can I trust someone who … (use the 'problem' that has been highlighted, please).
    So, I would say that Evan Wittenberg resumed it.

  14. Leaders are human and will have all the traits that will make them commit mistakes. But the key must be to realise when they are making them to constantly doubt their judgement and see for varying views. But this should not lead to indecision and "paralysis by analysis". sometimes they may require to over-ride many opposing views and move ahead but in such situations they must be absolutely sure of the greater good or the larger purpose they are serving and be firm but not arrogant.

    I thinks the most important mistake a leader can make is being self assured or lack the capability to doubt which leads to hubris and arrogance

  15. I guess what keeps this issue topical is something very fundamental, which I believe many acknowledge, but forget most of the time. And that something is the difference between Leadership and Management. If we remember all the time that Leadership is about people and management about things, then, every leader will recognize and live these basics about people: People had always HELPED you; People NEED to be LOVED; People NEED to be SERVED…and in service is HUMILITY…without it, there is no service…and without service…there is no leadership. The worst mistake a leader makes is to fail to know that it is all about serving Poeple.
    My recent post About PortShore Group

    1. Alabamarjara, agree that it's a pity there are so many so called leaders that are really managers. In fact most are managers. Interesting point about loving, serving and being humble. Apart from the Mahatma very few leaders (not managers) fit into your criteria.

  16. Catarina, this video covered it all. I was starting to think of my own thoughts before I played the video. I think they covered it all.

    A leader has to remember 'who' put them in the position in the first place. Sadly many leaders forget and it does become about them.

    A leader must not lose sight of others and who they are affecting. Often poor leaders forget and it does come to a point where they are so self serving, they no longer lead anyone but themselves. This breaks the trust bond and they fail in their position.

    Thanks for sharing Catarina.

    Jayne

  17. Great discussion Catarina.
    I think we could separate leaders’ mistakes from bosses’ mistakes. Actually, in order to become a leader a boss should not think to his own interest more than a bit. A boss who does not listen to and understand what other people feel cannot be a leader; he simply will not achieve that other people follow him. Inconsistent people do not inspire confidence, trust, thus cannot be leaders. Not delegating, just making all decisions by himself is not of a leader. Behaving so bosses will never become leaders.
    A big mistake a true leader can do is loosing the sense of reality, the scope, the price everybody is ready to pay in order to achieve the goal. Historic leaders may have crashed probably when they believed the goal was all and acted as they were God, knowing what is right and what is wrong. Thus excessive self-confidence and certainty are probably the biggest mistake. I also believe that a big mistake leaders make is not recognizing their own mistakes.

  18. Great video Catarina. After watching it, I'd have to say that Dr. Ellen Langer's comment that "being certain" is the biggest mistake a leader can make. I have always believed that the best presidents the U.S. has ever had are those like Ronald Reagan. He surrounded himself with experienced and knowledgeable people. Then he listened to them. He never allowed his ego to get in the way.
    My recent post As a Sole Proprietor or Entrepreneur Where Do You Turn for Support?

  19. Catarina,

    Although each speaker labeled “the mistake” with a different name, I believe they are all saying the same thing (a different way). Each speaker describes leading by ego. And when anyone, leaders’ or otherwise, lead by ego, they have lost sight of the bigger picture.

  20. Thanks Catarina for positing such a beautiful bouquets of diverse thoughts. I think the biggest mistake that leaders do which they think a small mistake….both while and after doing.

  21. I really liked Dr. Langer's response about certainty. I find this with doctors – the ones that are certain aren't really listening. The ones I like better often are good listeners. But all of these speakers had good responses, and true, many are basically saying arrogance and lack of self-reflection are problematic.
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  22. I absolutely agree with the video and the opening statement that the biggest mistake a leader can make is putting their own interests (ego) first, before that of those and the organization they are serving. The biggest lesson a leader can/should learn is how to serve.
    My recent post interview on CBC radio

    1. Glad you do, Doreen. It's a good video isn't it. It's too long for my taste, but even I forget the time since it's so interesting.

      Self interest is causing a lot of problems in the world.

  23. I definitely agree, particularly in respect to not staying true to their values, keeping your trust, putting themselves first and arrogance. Unfortunately, I have worked for a few leaders who have displayed some of these traits and it was not a pleasant experience in the least.
    My recent post A very good incentive

  24. Loved how the young guy said the biggest mistake is going too fast 🙂 I don't think I have that problem. I like the, don't make it about you, feel from both Bill George and Scott Snook. And I loved hearing from Langer that "things are always changing" – from just an individual stand point I feel like I'm the only one who thinks things are always changing. Glad to hear this is normal. Interesting video, I enjoyed it. Thanks.
    My recent post 10 Tips for the new school year

  25. I agree that true leaders need to put others (people, company) before themselves. There's a difference between arrogance and being self-assured, and most people can detect it. Acknowledging that other interests are more important than their own egos, that they don't know everything and should rely on others for information and assistance, all these will inspire followers to believe in and follow the leader.
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  26. Catarina — I believe the leaders who fail exhibit several of the mistakes that are mentioned in this very interesting discussion about leadership. The global financial crisis that caused the great recession starting in 2008 was a failure of leadership in several dimensions: CEOs who put their own interests above those of employees, shareholders, customers and the public; their arrogance; their lack of authenticity when they claimed they didn't know what was going on in their own institutions; putting execution before strategy and the list goes on.

    We could ask the question: are there any great leaders anymore in business or government? Look around. You would be hard pressed to find one.
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    1. Agree with you completely, Jeannette. And look at the state of the world. The rift between the have and have-nots is increasing rapidly. The middle class is in decline and the top 1 percent make the old robber barons look poor. Amazing isn't it.

  27. Self-interest in indeed the worst mistake a leader can make. And they so often do. Betrayal of trust is a mistake of human-kind…not sure it plays out any differently in a leadership role. There was truth in all of these statements. But were I were to categorize in terms of worst first, it would be self-interest. This was EXCELLENT! Thanks for sharing it

  28. I love the opening comments where he states leadership is about responsibility. So many "leaders" are out for themselves and what is the bottom line. Leaders just like the rest of us are humans and are not above any other human being. The amazing part is many times the people who they feel they are above are the exact people who made them who they are.

    Good leaders need to lead others to excel. A good leader is a teacher who strives to help others succeed. 🙂
    My recent post Paco Lola Albarino: WIne

  29. I think all of the ideas put forward are sound, but the one that I see leading to many of the others is when a leader believes it's all about them. Whether they are following a personal agenda, exhibiting arrogance, certainty or simply acting too fast and without reflection, then they are not effective leaders. How can you be a good leader if you forget that you are there to protect and guide followers?

    I find the most frightening people are those who have no fear of leading. It shows a fatal lack of understanding. I don't see leadership as glamorous, at best, when it's done well, it's inspiring.
    My recent post Transparency – Is it clear that it’s a good business practice?

    1. Agree with what you say, Debra. Glad you agree with me that leadership is not glamorous. Don't understand why so many people think it is. Most likely because they are not leading:-)

  30. OMG the opening! The opening so reminds me of both USA corporate America C level leaders as well as our government politicians. I know longer call them representatives. The trust is core to everything, so this second speaker gets my vote on that; there is little. Being able both to not deal with uncertainty and going against their own values – crimes against leadership again! As Doreen commented here, leaders need to get back to being a servant attitude.

    Most of the statements revolve around being selfish, not selfless. So will you have a follow-up about how the leaders can get back on track?

    Always valuable insights Catarina.
    My recent post How a publisher selects your work: a publisher knocked before I thought about a book

    1. Thank you, Pat. What's also interesting is that the mistakes mentioned are usually not committed by people who really are leaders. You don't become a leader by taking an MBA. If you don't have a leadership personality all you can do is learn tactics. It's sad that there are so many mangers in this world that are considered leaders. How leaders can get back on track? Admit that they are managers and not leaders and avoid greed in all its forms. But the latter is difficult because of human nature. Greed has always existed and, lamantably, always will.

  31. Leadership is beyond the analysis made ​​by prominent academics from Harvard, Oxford and INSEAD.
    There are leaders in all activities that surround us and the CEOs of Wal Street should not be the sole focus of academic studies.
    Indeed, the greatest current influencers do not fit in these comments (Obama, Dalai Lama, Merker, Gates, etc.).
    I believe that these universities, for its size and reputation, should situate their comments before sending them almost like the tabloid press.
    For example, we could say that the leadership is present in the family, in society, in the private and the public sector.
    In the private sector, one of the biggest mistake of leaders today is to think that their businesses are disconnected and survive regardless of the needs of the planet earth.
    That was what I expect from Harvard, Oxford and INSEAD in working together.

  32. PREACH! This is an awesome video that I will be glad to share. When the third speaker referenced being uncertain, it encompassed so much of what everyone else said. A 'certain without fail' leader ultimately will betray trust, be more focused on their own gain, and it's a sign of the personal arrogance and hubris that another participant raised. My experience with a leader that fell into this primary trap has made me a better professional, salesperson and motivator but at the same time was the catalyst for my decision to change course and leave a position that I was highly successful in.

  33. The video is interesting. All the speakers made for good points. How do you get effective leadership?

    I think if leaders followed what Warren Buffet is trying to get done, I think you will see a different type of leadership

    Warren Buffet is asking each addressee to forward this email to a minimum of twenty people on their address list; in turn ask each of those to do likewise. In three days, most people in The United States of America will have the message. This is one idea that really should be passed around.

    Congressional Reform Act of 2011

    1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they're out of office.

    2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

    3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

    4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

    5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

    6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

    7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 1/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.

    Congressmen/women made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

    If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S.) to receive the message. Don't you think it's time?

    THIS IS HOW YOU FIX CONGRESS!

    My recent post How Sawaya Found the Building Blocks to Success

    1. Warren Buffet is right, Arleen. Doing what he suggests would improve the reputation political leaders have. Unfortunately the problem doesn't only apply to the United States, but all countries in the world as well as the European Union. When at least 16 million people in Europe have lost their livelihood not only the EU but national govenments raised their own salaries and benfits. No wonder people get angry. One rule for the people and another for politicians.

  34. Catarina – Awesome post and video… I believe that every good leader leads people to achieve their up most potential. When leaders start to become so self-centered they start to fall. This is true to world leaders, business leaders, and each of us who lead. 🙂
    My recent post Bloggers Showcase: David Sutoyo

  35. Hello Catarina! I saw your post in the bizsugar commuinty and it catches my attention and I might as well leave some comments.. hmm.. The 9 worst mistakes said by the different profesionals above ( self interest, betraying trust, being certain,living up to their values,losing capacity for self doubt, arrogance, potentially getting too fast the all about themselves and trying to be something they're. and lastly the self- reflective) are all true and in some ways has their own points which is convincing . But among the 9 worst mistakes a leader can make is the SELF INTEREST, this is really a bad habit that will destroy a leader.

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  36. Over the years I teach to those I mentor "Egos & Assumptions" are two most expensive things to an organization…seems much of what these folk are saying lays at the feet of this saying. One elephant in their own living room they fail to see is the "Profs" over in the undergraduate departments in every major University across this country invest more energy into "De-Christianizing" their students than they teach the subject at hand. Their is a rabid contempt towards Christian values that unfortunately your tenured Marxist Profs preach to young students with as much fervor as an old fashioned evangelist. So until this contempt is purged from the undergraduate ethos, corporate America will be plagued with those who have been taught they need to abandon the mean spirited, archaic Christian morays that mysteriously built the most financially successful nation on earth since Israel in the 9th century B.C. The perpetual perp walk parade lays at the feet of those who aggressively encouraged young college students to abandon their parents Christian world view…and we call that "higher" education?

  37. I accept the first one is the greatest one, working for self interest, most of the leaders are like that only they want to hold there seat permanently, I really wonder no one discussed about the Bonus issue also. First one I want to add is worst leader is who is f you see each and every organization the leaders, will always depend on some one, to whom he is depending, what ever he says is always right, based on that he will take decision and get in to trouble, He won't analysis the issue properly, this is what most of the leaders does mistake in the organization. they feel insecure to discuss the issue with others and ask there opinion and take decision, because of that reason, many organization gone in to deep shit.

  38. Hi Catarina, hy all,
    In my recent new book ( No Way, The Big Bad Boss Era Is Over, Amazon.com) I talk about the 3 HIGG-parts in the DNA of human kind which are reflected in these wonderful explanations on worst mistakes : GREED HUBRIS AND NARCISSISM, the last so well discribed by Manfred Kets de Vries from INSEAD in his great book : leaders, fools and imposters. So that's why I used as subtitle the need for change. Leaders should have a HIT!! : and HIT stands for HUMBLENESS,INTEGRITY AND TRUST. A leader should always focus on the others, not on him/herself.
    Bruno Rouffaer

  39. First I find the criteria for this discussion was to general and so we have different opinions, the only participant who scratched the surface was Dr. Ellen Langer. You cannot compare the leadership of Mr. Immelt with Mr. Branson or even some leaders in the same field as Mr. Buffet and Mr Soros. Each of them, has a different style.
    To have a real discussion you need a precise criteria, the topics for each participant have to be identical, then you get clear answers, Harvard certainly has not all the answers, it is a excellent institution. but there are others.
    Gerhard

  40. Here's what I heard Catarina:

    Putting yourself before others or your company (how about country?), betraying trust (VW leaders recently stepped down because of consumer deception), being certain, not living up to their values (maybe theirs are different?), loving your vision that you are blind to problems (how about USA?), arrogance (oh YEAH!), acting too fast (or slow or NOT acting), accepting any leader style UNLESS it's all about the leader (isn't that number 1?), lack of authenticity and integrity, no self-reflection.

    What a list to pick from because they are all so important. Some of them are duplicated and I also think, if you put yourself before the big picture or the big cause, then it's likely showing up in some of those other ways.

    Makes me kind of sick about our country's leaders, and certainly some corporations and non-profits. Wow, I need to temper my thinking knowing that, all of us, even leaders are human beings.
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  41. Leading is about serving. A leader is expected to give far more of themselves than a non-leader. Much is expected, which is why some do not wish for it. Leadership brings authority and often status – how leaders wish to use this is the "make or break" point.

  42. All of the speakers made good points about key mistakes a leader can make. I think putting self-interest first is likely the biggest mistake, but lack of authenticity and trust are close behind.

  43. Loved seeing this video. It’s such a terrific bundle of information. Found myself nodding as each speaker presented their ideas. There are far too many leaders who make and live these mistakes. Unfortunately, the ones who need the information most are probably not self-aware enough to recognize themselves in the descriptions.

  44. I think the worst mistake is the one pointed out by the first speaker in the video: focusing more on your personal success than on the success of the institution or company that you are supposed to lead. It is also pretty short-sighted because your leadership ability is going to be evaluated based on the success of that institution or company. This is not all that uncommon, especially at a time when many leaders see their position as a stepping stone to a move elsewhere.

  45. Catarina, another extremely interesting post. Listening to the speakers I was thinking mainly about the political leaders of today and how so many put themselves first. I can`t remember which of the speakers mentioned `stepping back`for a bit, listening to the management team and taking a look at the overall picture before making a decision or developing a strategy. It seems to me that we get a lot of `lets do this`from government leaders who haven`t really thought through the process until the end, often resulting in wrong policies or waste of tax payer dollars.
    I guess after that, what I`m trying to say is that many let the position go to their heads so they do become self`centred, self-important and arrogant – all of which combines to make them totally ineffective as leaders.

  46. All of those traits matter in leadership effectiveness certainly, but I’d put the most stock in integrity. A leader with integrity can be trusted and they also have a clear vision of what to accomplish and how to best get a team to get to where a given project needs to do. A leader who put themselves first is not a leader at all and people sense that and react (or not) accordingly. Anyone who gives of an “I’m the leader” vibe instantly makes me wary.

  47. I agree with the statement about paying to much attention to personal success and not the success of the organization. We hear too many stories of CEO's who get millions of dollars when the company fails? They care too much about themselves, instead of the company or business.
    I have seen similar in the military. These are the types who would not blink wiping their men out in combat, as long as they get a victory from it.
    You could always tell a good leader in the military, they were the ones that looked out for the welfare of those below them, before they were concerned about their own.

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