3 Scariest Leadership Phrases…of All

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‘Tis the season — Halloween is right around the corner. Kids love to dress up, be spooky, and scare each other this time of year. But what if the something scary…was at your work, in the form of a bad leader?

Gather round and let me tell you a campfire story 🔥: Once upon a time, there were leaders. They, because of their character and ability to get things done, had people who happily followed them. But today, one can’t go a day without negative media and press around some fallen hero, a leader who let down their team, or was corrupt, or greedy, drove their company into the ground, or all of the above. Leaders…who fell to the dark side.

I’ve noticed that these types of leaders end up having no one follow them as well. And last, but certainly not least, these fallen leaders tend to say the following 3 phrases the most, which in my opinion, is the scariest thing of all.

What are they? Read on!


While a leader probably became a leader via as an individual contributor, individual contributors end up being leaders by default often times by constantly committing themselves to projects. They wear the, “I just say yes and figure it out later!” mentality proudly, like a badge of honor. While that might work for the individual, at least in the short run — constantly saying yes to everything when it just involves yourself is a great way to lead yourself (perhaps). A very scary phrase to hear from a leader of people, and one that will ultimately kill a team, is that same leader of people this time saying “Yes,” and then dumping everything onto her or his team to actually implement all the Yes’s, without taking into consideration what already has been committed to.

If a leader doesn’t check in with his team before (over) committing them to do his or her work or bidding, he won’t have a team for long. Overcommitment is one of the biggest problems in the culture of working America now, because people are clearly overworked in many cases, borderline burned out, and have no shred of time or ability whatsoever to be creative and add something of their own to a project anymore.

I harken this mentality back to Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. An individual contributor who overcommits herself only has herself to blame; but a manager and leader of a team who overcommits the team, especially without first gaining buy in and commitment from the team…won’t have a team for long, or have an extra crispy fried team from overworking them to death.

2. “I don’t know.”

While brave it is to admit as a leader you don’t know something once or twice as an actual good and humbling thing, continuously stating, “I don’t know” after the long haul should be a deadly sin. Leaders need to have answers if they’re leading teams.

We teach pharmacy students to not make stuff up if they don’t know something (for obvious reasons, like a guess could kill a patient), but also fess up when they don’t know something. However, we also teach them to go look things up if they don’t know, then follow up with answers.

This mentality should also be embedded in leadership.

The example I can think of involves setting priorities. If a leader cannot help set priorities for her team by constantly stating, “I don’t know”when asked on setting priorities, she and that team are doomed, if everything is constantly urgent, a yes, last second, and stressful. “I don’t know” burns teams out, because they cannot set any priorities either.

The best remedy for this if a leader can’t step up and help set priorities, in my opinion, is for a company to have clearly written values. Clearly written down and easily articulable values provide guardrails for teams in which to operate when there are no clear answers. When setting priorities, they can see through the lens of their values what truly is important vs. what is just white noise.

As I’ve said before, and it’s worth saying again — if your company and its leaders cannot articulate clearly what its values are — run. Run away and never look back. Because without them, the organization is doomed to get lost at sea. Read Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness, if you don’t believe me on this one.

3. “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

And scariest of all, I’m guessing that the leaders behind Kodak, Blockbuster Video, and Xerox probably used this phrase a ton during their glory days. History is littered with companies who at their heyday were seemingly impenetrable, and yet, went the way of the dodo. There are many reasons why companies fail, but in my opinion, the inability to change is probably one of the fastest ways to fold a company out there.

Leaders who proudly boast “that’s the way we’ve always done it” end up dying out because of their arrogance and ignorance/avoidance of the future. Things change. Times change. And yet, companies who don’t change along with it die.

My favorite book on resistance to change by leaders is the book, Rebel Talent. Rebels are the ones who DO make change. And yet, many of them are branded as curmudgeonly troublemakers and misfits, when in fact I often wonder how many of them actually made the world a better place and should be celebrated — not shunned. Thousands? Millions?

Either way, those who sit pretty on their laurels and ignore change will eventually be the ones to have no laurels to sit upon. And THAT, my friends, won’t leave you much money by which to buy your trick or treat candy this time of year…

There’s something way more frightening this time of year than any dressed up Frankenstein or Dracula — it’s the leader of a team who says the three phrases above all the time. Maybe THAT will be my costume this year! 👻🎃🦇


Erin L. Albert is a writer, and thinking about her Halloween costume this year — she’ll be going as the scariest thing of all…a bad leader, as described above.

Pharmacist, author, lawyer, entrepreneur and The Edutainer Podcast Producer. Opining is my own. www.erinalbert.com

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