5 Signs Of A Lousy IT Leader

Can you tell a promising IT leader from a potential troublemaker? Consider these managerial style red flags.
From former FEMA director Michael Brown to Enron ex-CEO Jeffrey Skilling, history is rife with poor leaders. "There are a lot of [people] who get into leadership positions who probably shouldn't," says Ronald Riggio, the Henry R. Kravis professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California.

While we can't always control who's in charge of an IT department, recognizing potential trouble ahead of time can help your team select and groom future leaders, and learn to deal with certain challenges that may lie ahead. Riggio cites five ways to spot a bad boss:

1. An unquenchable thirst for power. Power corrupts, whether it stems from running a software maintenance department or planning global IT capital. "Power becomes intoxicating, because all of a sudden people are doing what you want them to do, and that's very addicting," says Riggio. "The real problem, though, is that leaders who abuse their power aren't developing their people to collaborate with them, but to fear and obey them."

What's worse, warns Riggio, is that leaders who become drunk on power often start to believe that the rules don't apply to them and that they're somehow above the law.

[ For more on how to recognize poor leadership, see Are You A Bad IT Manager? ]

2. Punishment over positivity. Rather than empowering team members and fostering trust, Riggio says, lousy leaders control their minions using fear and punishment. By demanding complete obedience and punishing professionals for questioning department decisions, a bad boss creates an environment devoid of innovation and collaboration.

"The punitive management strategy is really terrible because leaders end up spending all their time looking for errors or people who are out of line and coming down on them," says Riggio. "But as soon as their back is turned, employees are going to try to get away with things. That's not a good management strategy. The best strategy is to encourage positive behavior."

3. Communication breakdown. Failure to communicate with colleagues is a key sign of a bad leader, according to Riggio. "The biggest problem with [poor] leaders is the tendency to under-communicate," he says. "[Poor] leaders believe that followers know more than they actually do, so they neglect to communicate information. Sometimes [these] leaders believe that followers don't want or need to know certain information, but in reality, workers want information. They want to know what's going on."

4. An ego in overdrive. To be sure, confidence is essential to managing both people and IT systems. But an IT leader with an out-of-control ego is a dangerous thing. "Extreme narcissism is really problematic," warns Riggio. "When self-confidence becomes narcissism, that's when a leader becomes toxic."

Leaders need to have some humility to recognize the responsibilities that come along with IT, and they need to understand that it's a privilege to care for the best interests of a team and organization, Riggio says.

5. Passion overload. Not unlike self-confidence, passion is a powerful part of being an excellent leader. But IT leaders should not allow their passion for technology to override their compassion for people, Riggio says.

"Sometimes the passion gets in the way of the humanity, especially if the focus is always on the technology--on the things, and not the people who are creating the things," he says.

Whether the vector is a phishing scam, a lost iPod loaded with sensitive data, or an email-borne worm slithering through a public account, our Well-Meaning Employees--And How To Stop Them report gives you pointers on keeping well-meaning end users from blowing up your systems from the inside. (Free registration required.)