How to Avoid Being the Leader You Don’t Want to Be – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“The main thing in life is not to be afraid of being human.”— Aaron Carter, Musician

Lessons in Humanity:

The best leaders are the ones who show that they are human. They demonstrate that the key to good, effective leadership is to act with more humanity. That means good leaders treat people with civility, manners, and good sense, regardless of the circumstances. There are lots of questions you can ask yourself about the behavior in your organization. Explore your company’s culture, values, and universal lessons learned about leading with concern and consideration. Are you, as a leader at the minimum polite and do you demonstrate care for your employees? It’s not rocket science.


You may have noticed inconsistencies in what leaders do and say, and we all know, actions speak louder than words. What’s important about consistency is that people need to know what’s

coming next. Leaders who speak out of both sides of their mouths are not to be trusted. Without trust, your organization can easily spin out of control. Morale plummets and people go through the motions of doing work just to collect their paychecks. To understand how your organization builds trust, we go back to the basics:  ask yourself and your leaders questions about how overt behaviors reflect the mission, vision, values, and goals of your company. What do you think of those who say one thing and do another? To erase confusion and establish trust, leaders need to be on the same page as everyone else. Think about the plunging popularity of the governor of California. He violated his own mask and social distancing requirements during the 2020 pandemic. He put his whole political career on the line due to the incongruency of his behavior. What about this hypocrisy do you observe in your own organization?

Weak Leadership:

It’s no fun working for a weak boss – you know, the one who avoids hard choices and leaves big

decisions to fate. Have you learned to recognize the milquetoast in the corner office and, further,  how to get creative to manage him or her. These people are easily manipulated and may even defer to the loudest voices and cower when upper management makes ridiculous requests (like requiring all signatures in ink, and not by electronic means.) Imagine what extra work is caused when people are not collocated, and you need to get an actual signature to complete an important project. You’ll be challenged to strategize a workaround plan for working with these lily-livered types who make work a most dreadful experience because the boss would rather make you run around chasing rainbows than challenge the rule that makes no sense. This person doesn’t want to rock the boat and is more interested in self-preservation than helping your career.

Drama in the Workplace:

Do you arrive at work each day expecting some crazy characters, bizarre scenes, and inexplicable plots to unfold? Do you have ideas on how to avoid drama and work through the wacky scenarios and odd backdrops you may witness daily?  Avoiding workplace drama is a definite survival strategy, and it’s a good thing to learn early in your career, because you don’t want drama to define your trajectory in your industry or profession. I’m sure you have your own thoughts about drama queens and kings in your organization. I bet Hollywood wouldn’t believe you.

Why Women Are Their Own Worst Enemies:

It may sound strange to you, but the lack of female support for each other is one of those “dirty little secrets” that no one likes to talk about. No doubt, the obvious questions to ask are: How do we eliminate gender bias? What does pay equity mean for women at work? How do we eliminate sexual harassment and offensive language on the job? What about childcare and the Mommy track? What infrastructure exists to help break down barriers for women? These are among the most common elements detrimental to women’s career growth. But when we pull back the curtain of truth, we notice that one of the most egregious barriers to women’s progress in the workplace is women themselves. Why is that? One major concern is that women don’t consider themselves worthy enough, meaning women don’t ask for the promotions or raises. They believe that their boss will automatically notice their brilliance and elevate them because they’re so good. Not true. Add in the mix that women don’t support each other at work and compete more against each other, and you have a very good recipe for why women stay stuck. There’s a lot more to it, but you can see where this discussion is headed.  Where is the help you need to determine where you stand in the sisterhood of working women?

Bring Me a Rock Syndrome:

The hardest lesson to learn when encountering upper management is that you must communicate on a very simple level. Most executives are not willing to use very much brain power to decipher your meaning, and they can be easily distracted by extraneous information. To grow your career, you need to figure out what this means. Simply put, you must keep conversations, presentations, meetings, reports, or any other kind of written or oral communication on the third-grade level. Executives want to breeze through your charts and get on to the next meeting. If you make your information too complex, they will either glaze over and start scrolling their phones or begin to pick on unrelated things like the color pallet you picked. I’ve been in a meeting where the executive went off on a tangent about the color red on a chart. He felt it signified a company deficiency and spent the rest of the meeting lecturing people about the use of that color. Other times, executives will stop meetings if any paper charts are used. Why? Because maybe they favor saving trees. Your meeting time will be eaten up by castigation about wasting resources when you can easily present your material electronically. Often these same executives won’t tell you what you did wrong, you’ll be ordered back in a week to bring him/her a new “rock”. Soon, you are looking for “rocks” instead of moving ahead with your project. You must learn to challenge yourself to manage your executives by being precise, simple, and giving them what they want the first time.

Soul Searching:

Have you become more reflective? Thinking about what makes good leadership can be a soul-searching experience. I’m sure you ask yourself “why” these crazy things happen in the workplace. Big company or small business, people are going to act in a certain way when placed in certain circumstances. It boils down to how human they want to be or can muster up the courage to be. It baffles me that people can be such bad actors at work and yet be loving husbands, mothers, and friends outside of work. Don’t you wonder what it would be like if some of these “leaders” acted more at work just like they do at home? When hearing the swearing, cursing, shouting, and observing otherwise bad behavior, I often think of the phrase “Have you no decency?” coined during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. (Look up the history if you’re not familiar). Especially in today’s world, we ask ourselves, where is the decency? Think of that school yard saying, “Do you eat with that mouth?” What ever happened to manners, civility, decorum, graciousness, and dignity? We’ve devolved into a race of tribal rules, including face painting and saber rattling. My hope is that you’ll take on a new perspective on behavior at work. Let’s bring decency back to the office; it would be a good thing, right? And we can hope that people actually do know better.

To quote Abraham Lincoln after the civil war: “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature

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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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