Leader speak — Badass or Just Bad?

CJ Cornell
5 min readSep 14, 2022

Oh, those powerful, commanding leaders.

You know the type: Baritone-voiced, stone-faced scowling — often Don Draper look-a-likes who just strolled in from Central Casting. Good looks, good hair and height. They have an aloof, authoritative and self assured demeanor giving off the illusion that they possess some innate power and wisdom.

When they speak to employees, it’s usually with a stern and slightly annoyed facial expression, as if they’ve just heard something confusing and impractical. That’s how they throw people off balance and gain some kind of superior advantage.

When confronted with a new idea, something creative or unusual — the best way to deflect it is the ask “what’s the plan?” or to say “there are details you missed” or simply to say “I don’t get it.”

It’s not that they lack patience for details, it’s just that new ideas equals risk: Not the risk of failure — but the risk that if the idea is successful then someone else might get the credit.

So these leaders become experts is sounding tough, uncompromising, and intimidating. They do this by spouting business power-cliches such as:

1 — “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”

Whew. This phrase is so powerful The US Marines could carry it into battle. When a leader wields this phrase, it stops you dead in your tracks. But it’s a double-sided bazooka, prone to spectacular backfiring.

For leaders, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” guarantees you’ll always be blindsided by problems when they are too late to solve. And, as your employee, it tells me that you have absolutely no interest — and probably no talent — for solving problems either.

Leaders — if you’re not here to help solve problems, then why are you here? If you’re only sitting there waiting to hear employees’ brilliant solutions all worked out, then what the hell do they need you for?

2 — “We put people first”

Another one of those phrases that just sounds like the right thing to say. At best it’s just too simplistic and idealistic.

“We put people first.”

Which people? Customers? Employees? What about the top-performing employees? Do you value them as much as the others? It’s when you have to make choices that it starts to get tough.

It’s like the ship’s Captain proclaiming “we put people first.” Which people? Passengers? Crew? And if the ship is drifting, broken, or sinking, then the ship comes first. Likewise, a CEO must ensure that the company is surviving and thriving — otherwise nothing else matters.

Yeah, all great companies seem to put people first, but this is pure survivor bias. There are thousands of idealistic companies who “put people first” at the expense of customers, products, and profit — and these companies no longer exist.

3 — “The customer is always right”

Leaders often default to one of two extremes: Either they are completely tone-deaf to customers’ wants, needs, and desires — or they say the opposite: ‘whatever the customer says, we should do’ — regardless of consequences to company strategy, or to employees.

Yes, the customer is always right — but the customer is not always rational; the customer is not always informed; and the customer is not always innovative. That’s your job. It’s your job to be smarter, more skilled, more informed, and more patient than your customer.

4 — There is no “I” in Team

Bad leaders say this in response to an employee who wants some of the credit for their own ideas and efforts.

Leaders want a cohesive team with synergy, so they try to make teamwork paramount. But they take it to the extreme “we must to collaborate on everything” or “we must agree on everything” mentality. Ultimately this descends into into a culture of conflict, dissent, and dissatisfaction.

There is no “I” in team, ignores the powerful need for individual contribution and creativity; individual accomplishment and recognition. It also assumes that everyone has equal skills, equal levels of commitment, and equal interest in the problem. It assumes everyone has an equal level of enthusiasm. It assumes that everyone is equally articulate.

Teamwork at all costs: While it sounds altruistic, logical, and impossible to argue with — it demotivates high performers by attributing their contributions to the entire team. Lazy team members ride the coattails of motivated high performers until the high performers are no longer motivated to perform at all.

There’s no ‘I’ in team.
There’s a ‘me’ though, if you jumble it up.

— Dr. Gregory House

These power phrases used to be the key tools for the leadership elite — outdated cliches spouted to make themselves sound decisive and focused. In reality, these phrases just cut off all discussion, all compromise, and all possibilities. At worst, these phrases signal that the leader’s priorities out of synch with the rest of the company — and maybe even the rest of the world.

The moment you hear someone parrot one of these phrases you can be sure it’s from someone who is insecure and devoid of creativity, imagination, and vision.

They’re certainly not a badass leader — they’re just a bad leader.

For more 5–1/2 Questions Interviews, see:

“5–1/2 Questions” from CJ Cornell is a new series of mini-interviews with leaders in the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem around the world. In less than a half-dozen short questions, we’ll try to learn more about each leader, and what makes them successful and unique.

The questions are designed a little like a “Magic Eight Ball” (my GenX colleagues know what this is): A set of questions, posed at random. Plus, at least one question, or half-question, is designed to find out something about their personality that most people might never suspect (I mean expect).

CJ Cornell is a serial entrepreneur, investor, advisor, mentor, author, speaker, and educator. As an entrepreneur, CJ Cornell was a founder of more than a dozen successful startup ventures that collectively attracted over $250 million in private funding; created nearly a thousand new jobs; and launched dozens of innovative consumer, media, and communications products — that have exceeded $3 billion in revenues.

He is the author of the bestsellingThe Age of Metapreneurship — A Journey into the Future of Entrepreneurship.”

And the upcoming “The Startup Brain Trust — A Guidebook for Startups, Entrepreneurs, and the Mentors that Help them Become Great.”

Follow him @cjcornell or visit: www.cjcornell.com

CJ Cornell

Professor of #Entrepreneurship & Digital Media. Serial/Parallel Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, Mentor, Angel Investor, #VC. Crowdfunding & #Startups Evangelist