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Developing your leadership style is a lot like working out: there’s no quick fix, and you must use a variety of techniques to see progress. As leaders work to define their leadership persona, the focus is often on what they should be doing. Whether it’s listening to others’ perspectives, consulting the advice of a mentor, or investing in continuing education, we all try to learn from and mirror the leaders whose success or character we admire. That said, there’s an argument to be made that you can learn just as many valuable leadership lessons from poor leaders.

Early in my career, I had the fortune (although I would have likely called it a misfortune at the time) of working under a leader who embodied what seemed like every characteristic a leader should not have. Through that experience, I began to understand what type of leader I wanted to be, and perhaps more importantly, the type I did not want to be.

Here are a few lessons that can be learned from ill-equipped leaders, plus how you can use them to shape your own leadership style.


We all have our own expectations of what leaders should do and what traits they should embody—and the opposite is also true. You know a bad leader when you see one. However, it can be harder to identify our own negative leadership traits because of natural blind spots to our behaviors. Introspection is key.

By working with and learning from bad leaders, you can save time that would otherwise be spent solely learning from the mistakes you made yourself. Identifying and addressing any negative leadership habits you possess as early as possible can also help you move up faster in leadership ranks. Personally, I largely credit the experience mentioned earlier in shaping me and helping me move into and up in leadership roles more quickly.


Another important leadership lesson I learned when I moved from one major technology company to another was not to be so laser-focused on the progress that I forget the people involved. This lesson came to bear when I stepped into a new role and decided that my leadership style would be focused solely on achieving results—I figured everyone is happy when we’re hitting our numbers. After my first year in the new role, I thought things couldn’t have been better. Business goals had been met and exceeded, numbers were skyrocketing—and yet my supervisor wasn’t as satisfied as I was.


The results were great, but because my focus was so set on outcomes, I failed to see the impact it had on employees. At the end of the day, my supervisor would have been happier with lower results and more employees involved in the journey, versus being a passenger on someone else’s ride.

It was at that moment that I learned the true value of leading without commanding. It sounds easy, but leadership can be a tricky balance of discipline and empathy. Leaders should provide the framework for success so that there’s no confusion about what goals need to be met, but that framework should be filled with empathy so employees are heard and supported throughout the journey.



At Avalara, we have success traits that guide every Avalarian in their day-to-day jobs. Among those traits is ownership, which says that every employee has their own duty, obligation, and responsibility to help forward the business mission. As a leader, learning how to fold the success of your team within the context of the overall success of the company can help employees understand how their contributions impact success at a higher level.

As a leader, you are a lifelong student. By taking negative experiences and turning them into opportunities to learn, we stand to learn a lot more about ourselves and how we want to hold ourselves accountable as leaders. To develop a strong definition of what type of leader you aim to be, learn from the good and the bad that come before you.



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