Five Characteristics in a Great Small Business Leader

business1Ladies and gentlemen, the Peter Principle is alive and well in American business today. Many managers get promoted, but not many know how to become a great innovator in business.

It seems the biggest sole contributor to attaining a position in management is to be absolutely devoid of people and communications skills. I know, that’s harsh, but that’s the way it is in many businesses that I see today. Being picked as the Chosen One at a business is great for the new manager, particularly for his bank account, but it can have a destructive effect on the organization. Productivity declines to near nothing, employee morale disappears, and retained earnings vanish under your very eyes. Management tracks a lot of data and issues a stack of memos like they were born for the job, but they couldn’t lead an army of fire ants to a picnic held by the American Crumb Association. The managers are weak in the leadership department, and chaos follows. What’s really scary is that these traits occur just as much in established managers, people firmly entrenched in their positions and riding it out until they get their gold watch.

Here is the 5 point litmus test to identify a weak manager, a leader in name but not in action. Does your strip stay blue once you immerse yourself in the test? Let’s hope so. You can rise above demonstrating one, maybe even two, of these qualities; more than that, start designing your safety net now, because your team’s going to fall.

1. Can’t Let Go of the Past. Managers in the lower talent quartile continuously reminisce about the old days, when the people worked harder for less, when we didn’t have this damn technology to complicate things, and global rivalry only occurred every four years in a place like Innsbruck, Austria at the Olympic games. They long for the simpler times, and spend an inordinate amount of time telling tales of how it used to be.

Are you living in the past? Move on with your life. I’m not advising ignoring past greatness or the principles that made it feasible, but the tactics you engage to manage these days need to be resilient, flexible. People aren’t inspired by the same things any longer. Money doesn’t govern all behavior, and job security in today’s human capital marketplace just ain’t the anchor it once was. People like hearing about the future, and the only way your business can benefit is to plan for it and then eagerly await its arrival.

2. Lack of risk taking. Don’t cause trouble. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Timid managers say these expressions and others like them, a lot. What’s worse, they believe them. The status quo is great, and they’ll fight to keep things the same. New ideas from employees and colleagues are analyzed for the possible unfavorable results. These so-called leaders don’t see possibility in new point of views; they imagine the danger that may occur. Their managerial careers are governed by fear and reducing, not broadening, their comfort zones. Many of these token leaders don’t even recognize they have this character deficit. One of these guys will steal second base provided his foot is nailed to first.

If you find yourself in this group, start by taking baby steps. Risk taking is a skill that needs to be sharpened to become comfortable. Take a chance on a new initiative where the negative risk isn’t so bad (there NEEDS to be some downside, or it’s not a risk, is it?). See what happens. Work your way unto leading by taking larger and larger thought out risks with higher returns. I’m not suggesting negligence here, but as you move up the risk taking curve, your skill at hedging your bets and creating successes from your decisions will strengthen. Your company can’t move forward residing in the status quo, so this one is critical to future success.

3. Demands rather than earns respect. Strong leaders never have to remind people of their title. Their subordinates, colleagues and customers know who they are. General Schwarzkopf didn’t have to keep telling the troops he was their leader, they already knew it. These type of things happen when respect is earned through actions and the example that a leader sets. By contrast, weak leaders relish telling other people, especially subordinates, their titles. The weak leader’s business card has an impressive title after the name, often using the word “Executive” somewhere in the phrase, as though the rest of us don’t know that a Vice President is an executive. Because respect hasn’t been earned, this lot gets challenged frequently and their only way to secure victory is to pull seniority.

The difference between a leader who has ordered followers and one who has a willing, passionate support team is the distinction between a mackerel and a tiger shark. If you find yourself needing to continuously validate what your position in the company is, you’re the mackerel. The keys to earning respect and loyalty with the troops are many, but here are a few:
• Set a congruent example; practice what you preach. Don’t ask employees to do what you wouldn’t be willing to do.
• Pass along credit to employees, even if their involvement was marginal compared to yours. Nobody likes a glory-hounding boss who is perceived as someone who takes credit for other people’s accomplishments.
• Actually provide a vision for the organization, which leads us to weak leader test number 4…

4. Vision-less. By very definition a leader needs two things so as to exist. The first is followers, and we ‘recovered that. The second is a direction, somewhere to take the followers. Thousands of leaders in modern business miss the mark here, wandering aimlessly through life, rolling with the punches. How do you spot the vision-less leader? Ask her, “What’s your vision for the future of your team, division, etc?” If an immediate answer doesn’t follow, summed up in one clear, distinct sentence, you’ve found an imposter. If shitakes out her business card flips it over and reads the company mission statement, strike two. I’m not suggesting that managers ignore the overall company mission. Far from it, but each individual person who wants to lead must have a goal that sets the direction for those in his territory. That should be supportive of, but not exactly a repeat of the entire organization’s mission. People want a purpose to help give their work significance, something to pursue. If they don’t get it from management, it’s up to chance that they’ll find an enabling vision somewhere else. Managers need to figure out what they want from the organization for the future, condense it down to something clear, and beat the drum regularly so that every employee knows it by heart.

5. No Stick-to-itiveness. Effective leaders demand and get results forth principal initiatives that they want to implement, often by the power of their own personalities. If a manager launches an event that needs care and nourishing, and then abandons it the next time he reads a business book on a trans-continental flight, he is wishy-washy and ineffective. This coward doesn’t have the tenacity to follow his convictions about what is right for the company, so the direction of the group is set by what’s hot-the flavor of the month. Look for this warning sign too-a manager who ends a project at the first sign of trouble, not recognizing the opportunity and results that lies beyond the wall of failure. This occurs daily, where the company accountant brings a report into the big cheese’s office that shows red ink at the start of a project. The manager then thanks the accountant and withdraws support for the change, which heretofore was touted as the “strategic paradigm shift for the organization, critical to our future success.” Poppycock!

There is an old skier’s proverb, “No guts no glory, no falls no…” well, you get it. Staying the course through rough times exhibits character strength and true leadership to those around you. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, General Custer had courage, and look where it got him.” No, Custer was stupid, ignoring the evidence before him and disregarding warnings from trusted advisors in the pursuit of personal success. Know the problem, know the business plan that you’re going to follow, and know the realistic effects that can stem from the change, including initial red ink, then make a decision and stick to it.

Your job now is to go through your company on a weak manager hunt, finding those who aren’t leading but merely existing and costing the company dearly. If you ‘re one of them, now you know. Once identified, you can help them develop, re-assign the lost causes, or ignore the problem altogether. So what’s it going to be?

Karl Walinskas is the CEO of Smart Company Growth, a business development firm that helps small to mid-size professional service firms build competitive advantage in an online world of sameness. He is author of numerous articles and the Smart Blog on leadership, business communication, sales & service, public speaking and virtual business, and Getting Connected Through Exceptional Leadership, available in the SmartShop. Get your FREE LinkedIn Profile Optimization eBook & Video Course, Video Marketing video and course, or Mastermind Groups e-course & video now.

About the author


Karl Walinskas

Karl Walinskas is the CEO of Smart Company Growth, a business development firm that helps emerging technology firms build competitive advantage and move the sales needle.  His Smart Blog  covers sales and service, office technologies and SEO, leadership, business communication, and has been named by Buyerzone and others as a top business blog.  He is the author of Getting Connected Through Exceptional Leadership, available at, and has been a featured expert for with articles published in many online and print venues.