Isabel Thottam

by Isabel Thottam

Leadership is one of the most important functions of a management team in higher education. Not only do the members of the team represent the organization to its students, stakeholders, and the world—but leaders also represent the organization to its employees.

There is a reason we have leaders—we need people to keep the team organized, to make sure it hits goals and meets deadlines. Leaders shape strong workers by inspiring creativity, motivating change, creating confidence, building morale, and initiating action.  Without strong leaders, an organization slowly and surely falls apart. 

Never underestimate the power of strong leadership—should you ever find yourself in a situation where you are working under poor leaders, you will experience firsthand just how important good leadership skills are to a college or university.

But what if you currently work under poor leadership? If you feel uninspired, or lack motivation to complete projects or start new initiatives—before you are too hard on yourself, consider how your institution’s leaders make you feel.

In this article, we’ll discuss red flags signaling poor leadership by diving into the following

  • How can you identify if your organization has poor leadership?
  • What are the top red flags to look for in leadership?
  • How should you respond to poor leadership?
  • How you can improve your leadership skills.


Section 1: How can you identify if your institution has poor leadership?

We, as employees, are always quick to blame ourselves for our problems at work, or lack of drive and interest. We complain about the workload, the lack of direction or communication, and may think to ourselves that our complaints and struggles at work are a reflection of our poor work ethics. It’s not very often that we take the time to connect the dots, or even consider: maybe it’s not us, but, in fact, the way the organization manages.

Before we can spot red flags in leadership, we need to first understand how to identity poor leadership and determine whether it’s them or us that needs some work. As is often the case, the first step usually is that you need to admit that something is wrong or doesn’t feel right. Before we can spot the red flags, we need to open our minds to the possibility that our managers aren’t perfect and might be a bigger problem than we may recognize.

First, consider if you can identify these top three traits of effective, good leadership among the leaders in your institution. According to Management Study Guide, a leader should possess:

  • Strong, morale character
  • The ability to be a visionary for the company’s future
  • Effective personal relationship

If you can identify a strong character among your leader, that person should have values and morals that align with that of the organization’s. If a leader has a strong character trait, they should be able to make decisions, despite any added pressure on big, tough ones.

A good leader is also a good visionary and can inspire teams, departments and employees to get excited about all that the organization will achieve and attempt in the future.  Leaders are the person moving the business forward, so this person must inspire employees, see a clear path to the future, and not be afraid or intimidated by it.

Lastly, one of the most important traits you should be able to identify in your leaders is effective personal relationship building. Life, and business, is all about people and our relationships to each other. How one builds those relationships is what sets them apart – especially a good leader from a bad one.

Now, take a moment to ask yourself the following questions to help you identity if you are experiencing poor leadership at work:

  • Do you interact with your direct boss or other leaders in your company on a daily basis? A weekly basis? Monthly?  When was the last time you had a meeting, check in, or even just a conversation with someone in leadership?


  • Are you and your boss or other managers working the same hours as you? Do the leaders of your organization come in later and leave earlier than others on the team? Do they appear to have more time off, work from home, or not have as much of a presence in the office compared to you and your co-workers?


  • Do you feel valued at work? Do your leaders give you constructive feedback? Do they ask questions about your projects and reward you for meeting goals or surpassing them? Has your leadership done anything to show appreciation, or acknowledge your success and achievements at work?


  • Do you and your co-workers spend a lot of time talking about work or complaining about issues at work? Do you feel like much has changed over the last year? Have problems been resolved, or does it seem that people are still talking about the same issues?


  • Do you like your boss? Do you think your company does a good job at communicating with you and your co-workers? Do you feel that you understand your role and how it impacts the business? Do you feel you are earning what you deserve for the amount of work you do?


  • Lastly, do you see yourself staying at this job, in this role, working for your current boss and other leaders for the next couple years? 

Now that you’ve taken the time to contemplate those questions, consider how you feel and any thoughts that those questions brought forward.  Moreover, maybe those questions helped you understand that the issues have less to do with your leadership, and more to do with your own personal happiness and enjoyment at work.

If it seems the issues at work have less to do with your work ethic and more to do with a lack of leadership, now we can dive into the specific details to look for.

Section 2: What are the top red flags to look for in leadership?

You might not have control over the people who run your institution, but what you can control is whether or not you want to continue working for them. If you are working for bad leaders, your growth and overall happiness will be impacted in negative ways. That’s why it’s important to spot and avoid red flags in leadership.

Here are some of the biggest red flags to look for in leadership:


Leaders who show their stress and take it out on employees in the form of yelling, throwing things, or putting more work on your plate is a sign of poor management skills.


If your leader micromanages you, they don’t trust you to do your job, and do not know how to delegate work effectively.

Trash talking

Is your leader always talking ill about other companies or products? Are they ever talking poorly about other executives, or even employees? Trash talk from a leader is a sign of insecurity and poor attitude.

Lack of acknowledgement for achievements

Leaders who do not acknowledge an employee’s big achievements do not know how to lead. If you achieved a huge goal or project that totally impacted the business in a huge way–and you heard silence, or justifications for the part they played in the success, your leader does not see your value.

Short-sighted thinking

Have you ever heard your leader say something along the lines of, “That department doesn’t really matter as much,” or “They don’t really do much,” then, again, your leader does not see your value and should not be a leader.

Never available

If you can never find time to meet with your leaders, or barely see them around the office, it sounds like your leader and company culture is dysfunctional.

Unable to offer or receive feedback

Constructive feedback is necessary for performance improvements and growth. Whether your leaders are unable to receive honest feedback, or unable to give constrictive feedback, both are signs of insecurity and poor company culture.

Lack of integrity

If you find yourself looking at what the institution and its leaders preach to the outside world, and noticing that they do not seem to uphold those values inside the institution, then something is wrong with the people at the top.

Before you move on, take a moment to consider if any of those red flags can be attributed to your leader. Now—what are you going to do about it?

Section 3: How should you respond to poor leadership?

You deserve to work for an organization with good leaders that will inspire you and help you grow into the role you’ve always wanted. So if you read through these red flags and multiple sounds like your boss — it might be time to find a new company to work for.

But, it’s up to you. You probably don’t have the power to control that leads your institution, but you can control whether or not you want to stay with this team. Remember: you cannot change people, they can only change themselves.

One approach would be to make a case to your HR department against your boss and point out the red flags in their leadership. While this might get a conversation going, it’s unlikely that your boss is going to change, or be removed. That sounds pessimistic, but, when you think about some of those red flags, many of them are character and personality flaws that this person needs to work out and are not things that will change overnight, or quickly.

When you identify that you have poor leadership at work, how you should respond to it comes down to asking yourself one question: can you still want to work for these leaders?

If you answer yes, you should be able to show up to work, do what you need to do and nothing more or less. If this is just a job, it should be easy to just clock in, clock out, and not lose sleep over the poor leadership your management exhibits.

But, if you answer no, it sounds as though this is your career and your want to work for a team that shares your vision, values, and work ethic. If, knowing what you know about your poor management team, you can no longer follow your leaders, then you have your answer.

You do not need to make a big deal about it (as much as you may want to point out the red flags) but when you do leave, you will get the opportunity to explain why you are leaving to HR or, if you feel up to it, to your leader.  At the end of the day, you have the power to decide what type of leader you want to work for and you deserve to find the right leadership team that will truly value and empower you throughout your career.

Section 4: How you can improve your leadership skills

As leaders in higher education, we must constantly work to improve our own leadership skills too if we want to lead our team (and students) to success. One of the best ways we can improve our skills is to simply ask our team for feedback. As a leader, it can be tough to get the right feedback because your employees may not always feel confident to give you feedback about ways you can improve, and you might not be aware that you are exhibiting any of the red flags mentioned in this article. This can be done during performance reviews, or you can ask for anonymous feedback if you think it would give your team a better opportunity to provide honest and useful critiques. Keep in mind that you are asking for this feedback to help improve your own skills, so try not to take the feedback too personally ,and instead use it to help you grow in your management position. If you have another manager or someone who you report to, you can also ask them to compile the feedback from your team for you, either during a performance review, or you can always request feedback from management at any time if you find you are looking for ways to improve before your next review.

Moreover, as you read through the points listed in this article, take a moment to consider if you exhibit any of these behaviors. Stress is something we can all relate to–you might not be aware how your stress is impacting your employees, so another way to improve your skills is to consider your own, current work-life balance situation. If you do not have a good work-life balance, you are too stressed and working far too much, which means your stress is showing in ways you might not be aware of. Take a moment to reflect on how your stress might be showing, and consider your options for improving your work life balance: two ideas to work on this would be giving more responsibility to an employee who deserves it or as asking for more to do and to remove work e-mails from your phone, or set a hard rule for yourself that you do not check work e-mails once you leave the office.

A good leader is someone who can spot their own red flags, address them and overcome them. They are also someone who is willing and able to receive feedback from their employees without inviting fear in those who might be afraid to speak up, or taking the feedback too personally. If you can address your own flaws and hone in on your best skills, you are sure to be a successful leader and one that employees will enjoy working under.

About the author

Isabel Thottam is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. A graduate from Emerson College, Isabel has self-published two books, “The Labradoodle Who Lost His Doodle,” and “Joy Comes In The Morning.” She writes on the topics of career, technology, sustainable food, mental health and has been published in Fast Company, Glassdoor,, Fortune, Edible Seattle, Paste Magazine, and more. In addition to writing, Isabel works for a small, family orchard in Washington State selling fruit!

Works Cited:

Juneja, Prachi. “Three Traits of Effective Leadership.” Management Study Guide.


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