Three Questions to Diagnose a Poor Leader


Whether you find yourself under someone else’s leadership or you’re trying to be a leader yourself, three questions can help you understand effective leadership.

Years ago, I heard a motivational speech by Lou Holtz, the famous football coach, now an analyst on ESPN. He said there are three questions everyone asks about a leader:

  • Can I trust him?
  • Does he know what he’s talking about?
  • Does he care about me?

If you’re an alliteration guy or you want extra credit, you can think of it like this: in leaders, we ask about “character, competency and compassion.”

If you don’t trust your leaders, life’s going to be hard. You’re parsing everything they say. Looking for discrepancies. Questioning their motives. Thinking “Just how many lies does this guy think he can tell me without me seeing through him?” There are few leaders we trust completely, but it’s awesome to be a part of something when we do. If you can’t trust your leader, start looking for other options.

But even trustworthy leaders have to be able to perform. To hold up their end of the bargain. I may trust my neighbor’s son who just finished medical school, but I’m nervous if he’s my brain surgeon and I’m his first patient. Competency is the easiest of these 3 “C’s” to change. Training and experience will likely make this one better over time.

And no matter how trustworthy or competent, we have to know our leader cares about us. If they don’t care, and if we don’t know they care, we’ll second guess their competency or character when something goes wrong. My friend is wrestling with choosing a surgeon for a very specific and important procedure. He’s asking “Do I want a guy who’s done 5000 of these, but who doesn't know me from Adam? Or do I want a guy who’s done 500, but who cares about me?”

If you’re struggling with your leader, ask these three questions. They may point you to the reason it’s not working and help you know what you need to talk through with that leader. Yeah, I know…some things just can’t be "fixed," and you’d probably better have your resume ready before you go. But at least you’ll know why you’re uneasy and you both can be alert for chances to make it better.

If you want to play in the "bonus round," turn the question on yourself. “When others look at me, do they see someone who can be trusted? Who knows what he’s talking about? Who cares about them?” Maybe we ask a few people who know us, follow us and whom we respect. But only ask these questions if you’re ready to truly hear the answers and if you’re serious about acting on what they tell you.

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