Bad Leaders and the Curse of Happy Talk


Good leaders are good communicators. There’s no way out of it. Happy talk is their way of casting vision but not accomplishing much.  One of the primary functions of a leader is to sell a vision, a destination, or a future to his or her followers. You can’t do that without good communication skills. But a good communicator is not necessarily a good leader. While your oratory skills might get you elected to a prestigious position, it will not keep you there long. I have been in so many meetings led by a good communicator who happens to be a poor leader. Most of goes on in these settings I call “happy talk”: the ability to talk about ideas, projects and initiatives that will never materialize. Chances are, next time the same people convene, some, if not all, of the same subject matter will come back up for discussion again. Happy talk will ensue but nothing will get accomplished afterward. Here’s sure signs you’re sitting through a happy talk session:

The leader’s ideas are grandiose but not rooted in reality. That usually happens when the leader’s idea so far outside the current scope of work and experience that it cannot be accomplished with the available resources. People will listen mostly because they’re getting paid to be at the meeting. You know you’re in the middle of a grandiose speech when you’re thinking “that will never happen.”

There is little or no conviction. The moment someone else in the room question the idea, the leader drops the discussion and moves on to another subject or topic. The leader is not comfortable with conflict and instead of working through the issue, it’s easy to just drop it altogether. Doers need to see how all the dots connect, before they can jump in and embrace a new idea. After all none of us want to get stuck with a project we cannot figure out how to implement. Weak leaders confuse the need for clarity with paralyzing conflict.

There are no implementation goals or time lines. I’ve been in meetings where a new idea is presented by a leader but after hours of “vision casting” we walk out of the room without specific goals, dates and tasks. In my experience, if you don’t have a due date a set of goals and a way to measure a win, chances are nothing will be done until the next time you gather again for another round of happy talk.

What’s your experience with happy talk?

  • Jeff

    I just sat through 3 hours of happy talk yesterday. I can't tell you how frustrating that is for a person like me. What can I do about it?

    • You can push for clear goals and delieverables from your leader. If that doesn't happen, you either need to make peace with it or find another job.

      • Peter

        Omg so untrue sometimes these guys have the best ideas you might just give them a hand instead of bringing everyone in your workplace down with cynicism?

  • I'm a new reader to your blog and I love it! I know people that are guilty of this and can see times in my leadership when I have been as well. Great reminder for me to guard against this. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for being here, Chris. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog.

  • Kris

    I think this is the reason I've always hated meetings, they seem to be all happy talk and no action. But what can I do about being stuck at a job with a bad leader that only creates and perpetuates this never ending cycle of happy talk and no action?

    • That's a tough one, Kris. In my experience, when you no longer can trust the leadership of an organization, you need to look for another job. It sounds harsh, but that's one of the variables you cannot do anything about.

  • Thanks for this Maurilio. The version of Happy Talk Leadership that I have seen of late is one in which leaders characterize institutional failure as the dawn of a new mission-vision. Seminaries, for example, have sold their property and stopped awarding the Masters of Divinity, yet declare themselves to be on the cutting on a new approach to theological education.

  • People who do happy talk hate it when you try to move things along by assigning goals and timelines yourself. They feel ambushed and rushed. It's frustrating.

    • Yes, they do and most of them are not happy when I'm in the room.

  • Andy

    Happy talk! Well, that's one of the more diplomatic labels I've seen put on it.

    It is demotivating and demoralizing to hear all we're GONNA do, something big is ABOUT to happen, etc. And it's more so when gifted, talented people offer ideas only to be told, "get back with me in a couple of weeks", "We'll look at that right after the first of the year" and the worst, "You know, I've been thinking about that myself and have already been working on some things in that direction . . . let's revisit that in a few weeks and see where we are." And, you guessed it, it never gets revisited and just dies on the vine. The Happy Talk says, "everything's great" and "better than it's ever been" when everybody paying attention knows better. Another problem, if the "leader" is a decent communicator, newer people coming on board don't know any better and get all fired up at the Happy Talk, only to be disappointed and get burned out a little ways down the road, making for a very dysfunctional organization.

    Another good read Maurilio.

    • Thanks. Yes, high-performance employees or volunteers will be quickly disillusioned with the good communicator who's not a strong leader.

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  • This is such a great call out. Working in a corporate atmosphere I've experienced much of the same.

    One of the best leaders I know isn't a rockstar communicator/presenter, but when he speaks people listen AND think.

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