At the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s first term, he appointed each of his former Republican rivals—those who had run against him for his party’s nomination—to cabinet posts. The narrative demonstrates his amazing ability to tap into a broad array of perspectives and create alignment among those who often disagreed violently with one another.
Unfortunately, Lincoln’s leadership was not perfect. He occasionally selected men for public service who were unworthy of his trust. One such individual was Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac and, eventually, first general-in-chief of the Union Army.
McClellan had significant character flaws that can serve as warning signs to anyone in leadership. I want to share five flaws I noted in McClellan as I read Goodwin’s book. These characteristics practically define what it means to be a weak leader. And the list doubles as a convenient self-evaluation tool if you want to avoid becoming one.
- Hesitating to take definitive action
McClellan was constantly preparing. According to him, the Army was never quite ready. The troops just needed a little more training. In his procrastination, he refused to engage the enemy, even when he clearly had the advantage. He could just not bring himself to launch an attack. When Lincoln finally relieved him of his duties, he famously said, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
One of the most important leadership qualities you can develop is practicing the art of the start. Perfectionism is the mother of procrastination. You’re never going to find the perfect time or the perfect circumstances or be totally prepared. At some point you have to kick into action.
- Complaining about insufficient resources
McClellan constantly complained about the lack of available resources. He didn’t have enough men. His men weren’t paid enough. They didn’t have enough heavy artillery. On and on he went.
Leaders who do this never get very far. I don’t care if you own your own business, lead a department in a major corporation, or head a nonprofit. You’re in place to deliver an outcome, and your job is to figure out how to get the resources or make do without them.
The truth is that, as a leader, you never have enough resources. You could always use more of one thing or another. But successful leaders figure out how to get the job done with whatever resources they have.
- Refusing to take responsibility
McClellan blamed everyone else for his mistakes and his own refusal to act. He even blamed the president. Every time he suffered a defeat or a setback, someone or something was to blame. He was a master finger-pointer. Great leaders don’t do this. They are accountable for the results and accept full responsibility for the outcomes.
Once, a consultant asked me about my company’s financial performance. We missed the target for that month, and I blamed the economy. “I get it, the environment is tough,” she responded, “But let’s be honest. It’s always tough, right? Michael, what is it about your leadership that led to this outcome?”
Whoa! I instantly felt defensive, but she helped me along. “As long as the problem is out there, you can’t fix it. You’re just a victim. I’m not trying to shame you; I’m trying to empower you. You can’t change your results until you accept full responsibility for them.”
- Abusing the privileges of leadership
While his troops were struggling in almost unbearable conditions, McClellan lived in near-royal splendor. He spent almost every evening entertaining guests with elaborate dinners and parties. He insisted on the best clothes and accommodations. His lifestyle—underwritten by taxpayers—stood in distinct contrast to that of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, McClellan’s eventual successor.
Leadership is first and foremost a stewardship, as Andy Stanley says. We never hold it for ourselves; we hold it on behalf of someone else. If you’re in a position of leadership, it’s to serve. And guess what? You’re accountable. If you abuse it, you’ll eventually lose it, as Gen. McClellan did.
- Engaging in acts of insubordination
McClellan openly and continually criticized his boss, President Lincoln, by being passive-aggressive. Even when Lincoln gave him a direct order, McClellan found a way to avoid obeying it. In his arrogance, he always knew better than the president and had a ready excuse to rationalize his lack of follow-through.
Criticizing your boss in public? Never a good idea. As Solomon advised thousands of years ago, “Do not curse the king, even in your thought; do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, and a bird in flight may tell the matter.” People in authority will eventually find out what you’ve said, and when they do, don’t be surprised if you get fired. You were asking for it.
If you disagree with your boss’s direction and feel deeply about it, then confront in private or resign. This really comes down to a matter of integrity. Even if your boss is incompetent, you have the duty to respect him or her. If you can’t do that, you need to resign.