2004 - Bad leadership
Planning a climb of Mont Blanc
with two friends, we drew up a quick agenda with
headings such as: equipment, medication, bookings,
training - that kind of thing. Item number one
on the agenda was leadership.
Oddly enough, there was no great
enthusiasm for the role. This should not be surprising,
according to Barbara Keller, a Harvard University-based
specialist in leadership. In a new book, Bad Leadership,
she argues that most of us are happy to be led
by others. This is why so often we end up with
people who are uniquely unqualified to do the
A book about poor leadership
is long overdue since most of the literature in
this field seems to assume that the heads of most
organisations are paragons of virtue, integrity
and competence. Far from it, says Ms Kellerman,
although she notes that almost the entire field
of leadership literature assumes that leadership
is synonymous with good leadership.
"Those of us engaged in
leadership work seem almost to collude to avoid
the 'elephant in the room' bad leadership,"
she writes, adding that this is "tantamount
to a medical school that would claim to teach
health while ignoring disease."
She makes the point that Adolf
Hitler, one of the worst tyrants in history and,
with Joseph Stalin, perhaps her most extreme example
of the bad leader, was "brilliantly skilled
at inspiring, mobilising and directing followers.
His use of coercion notwithstanding, if this is
not leadership, what is?" she asks.
One of the biggest problems facing
poor leadership, and possibly the most significant
reason we are stuck with it, is that so many of
us are prepared to tolerate - or even support
- those who are not fit to lead. The reason we
do so, says Ms Kellerman, is that it is easier
to toe the line than to make trouble.
"To be a well-behaved child
is generally not to question the teacher, even
when the teacher is somehow bad," she writes.
In the same way, as adults we continue to do as
we are told and to play by the rules, even when
the rules do not make much sense or are unfair.
Too often we follow poor leaders, she says, because
the cost of resisting "is demanding in a
way that going along is not".
Another reason that many of us
are happy to follow people for whom we may hold
little respect is that we tend to crave the kind
of simplicity and stability that does not go with
the responsibilities of leadership.
This observation suggests that
we get the leaders we deserve and if these people
are not up to their jobs, then we have only ourselves
to blame. We may argue that a business is not
a democracy and that bosses are appointed by the
board but internal appointments rely on employees
who are ambitions, confident and willing enough
to step up to a higher level.
Unfortunately ambition and confidence
do not necessarily equate to competence. Ms Kellerman
identifies seven areas of bad leadership: incompetence,
rigidity, intemperance, callousness, being corrupt,
insularity and being evil.
Of these traits, perhaps the
latter is least present in corporate hierarchies.
But it is easy to find more than a smattering
of the rest. Most of her corporate examples are
well known. These include "Chainsaw"
Al Dunlap who slashed his way through various
companies during the 1980s and 1990s, Leona Helmsley,
the despotic hotel boss who famously noted that
"only the little people pay taxes",
and the various corrupt leaders at Tyco, WorldCom
While many of these people displayed
ugly traits throughout their careers, they often
enjoyed the support of investors, analysts and
the media before their eventual demise. This was
certainly true of Al Dunlap when he headed Scott
Paper and during his early days at Sunbeam. It
was also true of chairman Ken Lay, chief executive
Jeff Skilling and chief finance officer Andy Fastow
at Enron. Ms Kellerman argues rightly that "it
makes no sense to think of corporate lawbreakers
as one breed and corporate gods as another".
If we accept that many of the people she mentions,
including those at Enron, were feted as they rose
to prominence, we can see that context and the
lifecycle of a corporate career are also important
features in any assessment of leadership performance.
Had Al Dunlap bowed out of Scott
Paper into retirement would he be reviled today
as a bad leader? Those who lost their jobs would
know the truth of his character but would anybody
care about that in the investment community? Had
the attack on the World Trade Center never happened,
would former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani have
been lionised for his crisis leadership?
As Ms Kellerman points out, before
9/11 the mayor had alienated many of his black
constituents. "Whatever Mayor Giuliani's
legacy as a result of 9/11, his callous attitude
toward African-American New Yorkers is part of
the package," she writes.
Most of her examples are American
but she might have said something similar of Sir
Winston Churchill. There can be no doubt that
Britain's finest hour was Churchill's too. By
1945 the electorate had tired of his leadership
but historically Churchill will never be portrayed
as a bad leader. That has to be right. We can
find numerous examples of poor leadership in Churchill's
career but he was there to lead when it mattered
most, and the speeches he made in 1940 restored
the resolve of a broken nation.
This is the nature of leadership.
Even the best leaders cannot be great leaders
all the time. Some of the best chief executives
may make the right decisions for years until they
make a poor one and they depart. Does that make
them bad? No. It means they are not perfect. None
of them are, and yet, so often, particularly in
those leadership books that clamour to highlight
their star qualities, the biggest corporate bosses
are celebrated almost as magicians who deserve
every penny of their ludicrous pay packages.
The reality is that everyone
makes mistakes. Of all the suggestions that Ms
Kellerman puts forward for avoiding bad leadership,
one of the most sensible is probably her proposal
for limiting tenure. Leadership so often turns
sour when people are in power for too long.
Wisely she includes advice for
followers too, since they must share some of the
blame for bad leadership.
But nowhere does she recognise
potentially one of the most powerful restraints
on wayward corporate leadership: a well-supported
and responsible trade union whose members are
willing to stand up and be counted when treated
At the end of our Mont Blanc
meeting we decided to share the leadership, appointing
a UK boss, a separate boss for mainland Europe
and an operations supremo until we reached the
mountain when all responsibility would be handed
over to a Frenchman, our Chamonix guide who knows
his mountain. There are times to lead and there
are times when it can be best to be led.
Bad Leadership, What it is,
How it happens, Why it matters, by Barbara Kellerman
is published by Harvard Business School Press,
price Dollars 26.95
as a pdf file