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Defining poor leadership

I’ve written about what constitutes good leadership in a previous feature, here I share some thoughts on poor leadership.

First, we must recognise it so that we can challenge it. Although there is some crossover between management and leadership, the impact of poor leadership is known to have a detrimental effect on workplace culture.

A poor leader is likely to be someone who lacks self-awareness

The context we work in means how we manage resources and people will vary depending on the circumstances. A leader, regardless of the circumstances, is always someone who is able to build trust and influence others to work together towards a shared goal.

Someone may have positional authority given to them by their job title, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be regarded as a leader. Effective leadership means being compassionate towards others, engaging and motivating people to move in a particular direction.

So, a poor leader is likely to be someone who lacks self-awareness and the ability to manage their emotional responses, often they are unable to consider the needs of others or are unable to support them to become leaders themselves. Poor leadership might be something that any member of the team demonstrates, not just the person in charge.

What can you do?

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Sometimes in these situations, it’s easy to feel powerless. You may think that the easiest solution is simply to try and ignore it or walk away and find work elsewhere. But as nursing staff, we are all accountable for our own self leadership and the culture of our teams. Each of us is responsible for effective teamworking and for speaking up, giving feedback and calling out the incivility, micro-aggression, the bullying, or the lack of compassion in patient care. 

Staying silent is an act of poor leadership

Ask yourself, do you know what it will take or how much you will tolerate before you take action to raise a concern or seek guidance on what to do? Knowing the limit of what you consider to be unacceptable will help you understand your own values and when you’re prepared to act on them. Would others you hold in high regard consider these limits to be reasonable?

Staying silent is an act of poor leadership. When you see a colleague being disrespectful and maybe rude to another staff member or patient, or making an inference because someone is from a different cultural background, we need to find a way to challenge it. So, through our collective leadership we contribute to creating a healthy workplace culture.

Practical steps

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We all need to sign up to being better allies. We need our teams to be inclusive and positive places to work and we need to rid our profession of discrimination. We must also think of each other’s struggles as our own, as this guide to becoming a “thoughtful and effective” ally explains. Being an ally is a sign of good leadership.

Giving and receiving feedback

A key skill in challenging poor leadership is giving balanced feedback. For a team to work well together, we all have to get better at this. As this resource explains, balanced feedback is about responding to both what is being done well and areas where improvements could be made. Feedback is not criticism, nor is it something to fear, either as giver or receiver. Saying thank you and commenting on when things have gone well is really important - we need to give more than double the amount of positive feedback for every one comment on where things can be improved. This plays a critical part in ensuring we achieve good patient outcomes, and this is something we can all do.

Being aware of your impact on others

Poor leaders don’t listen well or really see what’s going on around them. Their ears and eyes are not open to what other people think or believe. It’s possible that their emotional intelligence, self-management and self-leadership has not yet fully matured. They may think they are expected to have all the answers, but they don’t. Believing that leaders need to have all the answers can make them lonely and isolated in their role. Learning is a critical part of being a good leader, but the best leaders also have the ability to admit “I don’t know”.

As followers, one of the things we must do is help our leaders to stay grounded and in touch with the reality of the work. One way to achieve this is by giving and receiving authentic 360-degree feedback as this can encourage good leadership.

Being a good leader enables others with greater or better knowledge to contribute to improvements or solving problems. So, a good leader is somebody who continuously learns and recognises the limits of their knowledge, while also facilitating the learning of others. What they are really good at is liberating the talents of those around them so that their team trusts each other and becomes far more than the sum of its parts.

To sum up

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We all have a responsibility for creating good leadership - we should each reflect on our values, what matters to us, and the actions we are taking to build trust within teams. If our team is ineffective or if patient outcomes do not match expectations, we must ask, what am I contributing to the team? How can I contribute differently?

Be clear about the process for taking your concerns further

Becoming better at giving feedback – and receiving it – can help establish whether concerns are perceived shortcomings in leadership in fact caused by clashing personalities.

Finally, know how to speak up - you may be a lone voice or your views may be shared by many. If your feedback is not being listened to, be clear about the process for taking your concerns further. If you feel you are being prevented from delivering safe, compassionate care, RCN advice is to act early – don’t wait for a problem to develop.

Take ownership and learn more

No-one sets out be a poor leader - circumstances and the culture can make it difficult to do the right thing. We can and must find a way to be a good leader ourselves. The below resources might help.

Sally Bassett is Chair of the RCN Nurses in Management and Leadership Forum Committee. This article has been written in consultation with committee members and with the input of Christine McKenzie, RCN Professional Lead for Learning and Development.

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