Ineffective Leadership in Business


Modern business scholars and corporate officials themselves equally acknowledge how great the role that leadership plays within organizations. The existing literature, however, largely focuses on the positive aspects of leadership, leaving the darker aspects and their consequences behind. By their very nature, the main leadership evaluation frameworks prioritize the positive traits of leaders in an attempt to create a portrait of one, suitable for the ever-evolving corporate world of today. Yet now, as the global business world is attempting to adapt to the world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the pre-existing leadership flaws in some organizations have fully come to light. This paper attempts to conceptualize ineffective leadership in business, as well as outline potential causes and solutions for the issue.

Ineffective Leadership: The Definition

As the parasitic form of organizational leadership, the inefficiency characteristics depend on the leadership model that was originally established within the firm. Generally, the scenarios of ineffective laissez-faire leadership and of toxic variety of authoritarian leadership are the easiest to identify. Bad examples of laissez-faire leaders abuse the freedoms of the approach to avoid accountability for the company’s course and performance (Guo et al., 2019). When the target is not met, it is easy for an inefficient laissez-faire leader to blame their subordinates or circumstances exclusively. These avoidant behaviors are often accompanied by a lack of internal communication with employees not feeling like they could discuss their concerns and questions with the one in charge.

Such examples of ineffective leadership stem from the fundamental misuse of the concepts and principles that constitute the laissez-faire approach. In this case, the leader takes the benefits to the extreme, where they instead become significant issues. It is definitely tempting to revel in one’s reputation as a permissive and supportive leader, yet without the centralized control of the firm organizational efficiency quickly decreases. Furthermore, under the ineffective use of this model, the internal chain of command might descend into chaos, with employees unsure of their responsibilities and existing report mechanisms alike.

Thus, organizational clashes are unavoidable, leading to the misuse of resources and, potentially, large financial losses. The existing literature on the ineffective types of laissez-faire leadership compares organizations with trains going off the rails and losing sight of the overall destination. The situation is further complicated by the downsides natural to systems with large degrees of internal freedom, such as the frequent triumph of discussions and processes over decisions and results.

However, ineffective leadership is often tied not to structural attributes of the imperfect system but to the personal attributes of the leaders themselves. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as negative leadership or toxic leadership, which often manifests in abuse of power and disproportionate punishment of the internal opposition. In contrast with the previous example, toxic leaders are quick to demand full submission to organizational questions, often disregarding the overall interests of the firm (Watkins & Walker, 2021).

The usual downsides of the purely authoritarian leadership model in the modern business environment aside, this way of leading effectively ties the organization’s perspectives to one person’s vision. As everyone is flawed, the leader in this scenario resigns the firm to the position of their toy, depending on their moods and shortcomings. Naturally, this behavior is frequently a red flag in the eyes of investors and other stakeholders, who end up wishing to avoid any business with the toxically led company.

In either of these extremes, as well as in the more balanced cases of ineffective leadership, the followers suffer from a lack of motivation and attachment. They experience the absence of job satisfaction, low self-confidence, and, sometimes, an array of psychological issues. Indirectly, ineffective leadership is tied to poor job performance, with followers’ efficiency suffering from dysfunctional managerial strategies.

Studies indicate that leaders that engage in ineffective behaviors outlined above are themselves burdened by consequences, such as personal dissatisfaction, derailment, and demotion. In extreme cases, they engage in self-sabotage and deliberately make poor decisions at the later stages of their leadership cycle, attempting to, metaphorically speaking, sink the ship even further.

However, while moving on to discussing causes and solutions to the issue of ineffective leadership, it is important to establish boundaries of its influence on the eventual organizational failure. Experts assert that although ineffective leadership does have a significant negative influence on organizational performance, it is not the sole factor to blame. Organizational management literature presents the concept of a toxic triangle, where ineffective leadership is enabled by susceptible followers and conducive environments.

This model identifies narcissism, negative charisma, and personalized power as the traits of a toxic leader, once again moving away from strictly laissez-faire connotations of the problem. Susceptible followers are described by the triangle as passive conformers or self-interested colluders, who promote the destructive leader’s action in an attempt to raise up in the organizational ranks. Finally, certain traits of an organizational environment might facilitate the emergence of toxic leadership, namely the perceived external threat and uncertain power dynamic prior to a leader’s rise to power. Certain cultural trends and larger historical cases might, in some cases, also contribute to the negative development in question.

The toxic triangle model studies not only the toxic leadership itself but the ways in which it is established in an organization from within. Such a complex approach to the problem is useful when discussing the causes of the problem. The next section of the paper discusses the prerequisites for ineffective leadership in greater detail, largely putting the role of the unhealthy organizational environment into the spotlight. Furthermore, the role of followers is not to be downgraded either, considering the existing mechanisms of employee influence in most modern companies.

Causes of Ineffective Leadership

The cause of ineffective leadership might be broadly categorized into personal, functional, and environmental. These terms refer to the source of the cause and the process of its formation, effectively establishing who or what is to blame for a particular negative characteristic or pattern. Personal causes reflect the internal failings of the leader, is often tied to their negative individual and moral traits, or lack of attachment to the organization. Functional causes are tied with ineffective leadership mechanisms and practices, often stemming from the lack of awareness of the organization’s true needs and resources. Finally, environmental causes are of a structural nature and rely on the enabling mechanisms listed in the previous section.

Personal causes stem from the negative personal attributes of leaders that prevent them from establishing a cohesive and effective leadership approach. Studies identify both laziness and lack of attention to detail and the tendency to bullying and intimidate followers as frequent prerequisites to the titular issue. Ineffective leaders are frequently unable to build objectively beneficial teams, cannot delegate their responsibilities, and do not pay enough attention to their tasks. They might be prone to under-or over-managing, resulting in either the ineffective pseudo-laissez-faire model or excessive control over organizational processes.

Other negative attributes stem from mixing the personal and the professional, with an ineffective leader being unable to control their emotions in the work context. Frequently, they either act overtly sensitive or, on the contrary, give their followers the cold shoulder and possess an arrogant manner. They withhold reasonable support from their subordinates either entirely or in response to disagreement. Finally, there are cases of overriding personality defects, such as the inability to manage anger or pathological lying.

Other interpretations of the role of the personal factors in negative leadership practices have identified six psychological traits as the most undesirable for leaders across the organizational landscape. These attributes include ruthlessness, prominence to asocial and self-centered behavior, irritability, loner tendencies, egocentrism, and excessive authoritarianism. These traits are followed by face-saving behaviors and a lack of ability to work in teams, also seen as undesirable in leaders. It is clear that among the wide variety of mentioned personal causes for negative leadership, there are multiple contradicting, sometimes directly contrasting flaws, difficult to find in one person.

By logical extension, it would be improbable to find a psychologically perfect leader who would not possess at least a fraction of any of the negative qualities mentioned. The understanding of how one’s flaws might cause or contribute to their ineffective leadership behaviors is necessary primarily to outline the path and objectives of one’s self-development. Within the modern corporate context, in particular, leadership is largely a competence that can and should be developed, at least in those whose position in an organization demands it. The presence of some of the outlined flaws, at least to a mild degree, is to be expected in the vast majority of people. Leaders, however, are able to rise above their internal limitations, and this process begins by recognizing the ways in which one’s traits limit their potential.

Functional causes concern the use of outdated leadership and motivational practices, as well as practices poorly fit for a particular organization or industry. They often emerge when, after the cases of corporate mergers, a new leader is appointed to an already established firm. A new person enters the already functioning mechanism of an organization and is expected to lead it, sometimes without accumulating the appropriate knowledge of the firm in question (Pyc et al., 2017). Some firms are easier to penetrate from the outside than others, with the production-focused enterprises generally requiring greater amounts of specific knowledge from their leaders.

Without the proper preparation and background information, the leader would be functionally unable to perform their duties effectively, as they wouldn’t understand the company’s needs.

Alternatively, functional causes of ineffective leadership may include the use of outdated motivational, managerial or team-building practices. With the current business landscape consistently evolving, the market for corporate self-improvement and well-being is more prominent than ever. Effective leaders and managers learn new ways of benefiting their organizations almost every day, with even some of the most innovative practices being relatively short-lived. Hence, even for the most involved and productive leaders, the risk of falling behind the latest achievements and trends in the business world is ever-present.

Environmental causes are commonly referred to as organizational neutralizers, with the implication of these factors nullifying the effectiveness of otherwise potentially beneficial leadership practices. These characteristics make it practically impossible for either relationship or task-oriented leadership to make a difference (Jacobs, 2019). Interestingly, this third category of reasons has very little ties to the personality and decisions of a leader themselves, which makes it arguably the hardest one to address effectively. There is a total of 12 dimensions of common organizational neutralizers that decrease the efficiency of even the most innovative and grounded leadership tactics and behaviors:

  • Limits of the subordinates’ ability, training, knowledge, and skills.
  • Professional orientation of the subordinates.
  • Indifference to motivational tactics and organizational rewards.
  • Routine and invariant work tasks that decrease personal involvement.
  • Insufficient feedback mechanisms for the professional accomplishments.
  • Formalization of the company that prevents it from effective communication.
  • Lack of flexibility in the chain of command.
  • Insufficient staff support networks and services.
  • Team tensions and unsatisfactory collaboration.
  • Organizational rewards and traits outside of the leader’s control.
  • Practical distance between leader and subordinates; them being located at different offices.
  • Internal need for independence when displayed by the employees.

These neutralizers create an influence vacuum that decreases the efficiency of the leadership practices involved, often by establishing barriers for policy changes to make a practical impact. Bureaucratic control, external political influence, and limited power of positive rewards might increase structural and personal resistance to change, nullifying the efforts of the leaders. These neutralizers operate independently from the quality of the leadership itself and often need to be addressed on a structural level of the organization’s management at large.

Potential Solutions

As with many other organization management-related issues, the first step to solving the existing problem is to admit its presence. With ineffective leadership, this step might be exceptionally tricky, particularly when personal causes and leaders’ narcissism are concerned. In situations where one’s temper is getting in the way of the company’s prosperity, one of the internal feedback mechanisms should facilitate an honest conversation regarding the issue. Modern corporate well-being programs might benefit the troubled leader; however, their initial established existence is required. Thus, it can be summarized that a firm should invest in internal well-being and psychological support programs to potentially facilitate cases of conflicting interests in the future.

The absence of positive attributes and the presence of negative attributes in a leader are equally likely to decrease their capacity to lead effectively and productively. With this knowledge in mind, the importance of personal assessment of the candidates for leadership positions becomes increasingly apparent. HR managers internationally have adopted the strategy of corporate peer reviews, where each member of the workforce is graded on the basis of relevant KPIs and values.

Not only their superiors but their colleagues participate in said assessment, which is later taken into account when a person applies for a promotion or an internal position. The HR department is then able to consider multiple perspectives on a candidate’s personality traits. They, therefore, can assign the leading roles to people that possess empathy, self-awareness, good company knowledge, charisma, ability to delegate and negotiate with others.

When an existing leadership approach turns out to be an ineffective version of the laissez-faire attitude, a leader might seek help from external consultant agencies and trust co-workers. They might organize a meeting with the company managers and revise the existing chain of command and role specifications. Generally, the internal resistance to change in these scenarios is virtually non-existent since the overtly relaxed approach would likely get in the way of the employees’ attempts to perform their daily tasks. Current motivational techniques might also be revised with the introduction of new organizational rewards stimulating outstanding performance.

In addition, the company might implement further training initiatives for their leaders and managers. These initiatives can be framed as opportunities to broaden horizons as opposed to punishment for poor performance. Training’s relevancy, in this case, is vital, with new forms of knowledge being implemented in the corporate landscape every day. It is also important for a leader to be able to tie the new skills to the issues and concerns existing within the firm itself. Careful yet swift planning of specific training resources is required to avoid disproportionate investments into ineffective initiatives.

Furthermore, a firm that has encountered the ineffective leadership issue would benefit significantly from improving its feedback channels. As outlined above, there might be multiple types of applications in which a leader has turned out to be ineffective. Consecutively, a universal solution is unlikely to be found, and employees’ perceptions of their interests and needs should be taken into account. It is then advised for a firm to combine the received feedback with the objective data of the organizational KPIs to determine the best course of action.

Finally, when dealing with the leader’s systemic failings, it is necessary that a management team tailors its expectations realistically. A degree of leadership failure is unavoidable in the unpredictable environment of modern business. In fact, the ways in which leader chooses to address the failure and learn from the outcomes is considered one of the most important measurements of their leadership capacity.

It might be a product idea for the leader to address the failings of the ineffective leadership period objectively and brainstorm the potential positives they might instruct. For example, the poor performance of the new product launched by the leader in the recent past might provide valuable data on the target markets’ wants and needs. The leader may then work together with managers and other key stakeholders of the company to contribute to the firm’s prosperity going forward.


In conclusion, ineffective leadership is a multidimensional problem, most often attributed both to the personal failings of the leader and the negative characteristics of the company’s internal structure. It is a consistent risk for modern firms, independent of their locations, scales, and industries. Both a leader’s willingness to improve themselves and the company’s readiness to increase its internal flexibility and better the established communication channels are required to address the ineffective leadership issue.

Unfortunately, it is not a problem that can be solved once and for all, with the ongoing digitalization of commerce transforming the organizational management landscape with every passing day. On the bright side, no leader is bound to be ineffective forever, as even the most damaging personal traits might be corrected once admitted. Once a leader begins to prioritize the company’s interests over their personal comfort, they are already one step closer to improving their handling of the organizational issues.


Guo, J., Dionne, S., & Tsai, C. (2019). Ineffective leadership: Intentionality and attribution to explain unintended hostility. Academy Of Management Proceedings, 2019(1), 15961. Web.

Jacobs, C. (2019). Ineffective-leader-induced occupational stress. SAGE Open, 9(2), 215824401985585.

Karp, T. (2018). We are asking the wrong question about leadership: The case for ‘good-enough’ leadership. In Dark sides of organizational behavior and leadership. IntechOpen.

Pyc, L., Meltzer, D., & Liu, C. (2017). Ineffective leadership and employees’ negative outcomes: The mediating effect of anxiety and depression. International Journal of Stress Management, 24(2), 196-215.

Watkins, D., & Walker, S. (2021). Victims in the dark shadows: A model of toxic leadership. Journal of Organizational Psychology, 27(2).

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