There are shelves full of books available that chronicle the lives and histories of the world’s bad leaders. For the most part though, these bad leaders are discussed as tyrants, dictators, and despots. Seldom is serious writing dedicated to them as leaders. To fill the gap, Barbara Kellerman gave us Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters. Her approach addresses what she calls the “elephant in the room; bad leadership.” Most discussions tend to cast leadership as good, either ignoring bad leadership or presenting it as something other than leadership. In fact, leadership is leadership and there are good and bad examples everywhere. Bad leadership shouldn’t imply a bad person, but rather leadership which is ineffective. Hitler was an evil person and his goals and methods were despicable, but, at least during the early years of his reign, he was actually a good leader. It’s important to be able to clearly recognize bad leadership, and the sooner the better.
There’s an element of leadership, often overlooked, but essential: followers. By definition, a leader must have followers, and those followers often are the catalyst that enables the bad leadership. Throughout the book, Kellerman includes bad followers as a part of bad leadership, making the point that immoral leaders usually have immoral followers. This is probably one of the most important components of her work; find a bad leader and, most likely, you’ll find close followers who are just as bad for the same reasons. This is something too often overlooked by those who study leadership.
Kellerman divides bad leadership into seven types and provides examples of each. Discussion is not reserved just for the leader. Again, emphasizing the importance of followers, she clearly identifies where followers enabled bad leaders. For instance, discussing Marion Barry as an “intemperate” leader she points out several of his family and close associates who not only enabled, but could have prevented, Barry’s descent which eventually led to arrest and incarceration for illegal drug use.
Unfortunately, Kellerman selects some questionable examples. For instance, to illustrate “callous” leadership, she cites Rudolph Guiliani, specifically referring to the case of the shooting of Amadou Diallo by New York City Police officers. To be sure, the shooting was wrong, as even the involved police officers freely admitted in court; however, in her analysis, she claims that Giuliani was callous in his relationship with the minority community and that the Diallo case brought the issue to a head and illustrated that callousness. While Guiliani may appear callous, he willingly took on an extremely difficult crime problem in New York and made a significant difference. Sometimes a leader may appear callous by not swaying to the wind of individual groups. It is a true leader, a good leader, who keeps his or her eyes on the ultimate goal when others around him are following other agendas. I think it’s safe to say that his success in significantly reducing crime in the city was of great benefit to the minority community, since that was where a lot of crime was happening. The fact that he didn’t kowtow to minority leaders such as the Rev Al Sharpton (not exactly a paragon of virtue himself) doesn’t make him callous. Could he have responded better to the Diallo case? Yes. Does that make him an example of a callous leader by Kellerman’s definition? No.
In another example, Kellerman sites May Meeker as an example of a “rigid” leader. Meeker was a financial analyst for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co and in that position was an enthusiastic advocate the dot com stocks of the mid 90s. When the dot com market began to turn, Meeker didn’t, instead remaining bullish on her tech stock picks. The dot com market collapsed and many of those who invested based on her advice lost large sums of money. Was Meeker a leader? Kellerman calls her an “opinion leader” rather than a leader in the conventional sense. There’s a big difference though between someone in a position of authority and someone who merely issues opinions which others are free to follow or not.
Kellerman concludes her study by proposing what she calls corrections for leaders to prevent their descent into bad leadership. Like so much in the study of leadership, these corrections are simple, yet so often overlooked or ignored. True to her mode throughout the book, she also includes corrections for followers. These suggestions are exactly on target, though they do sometimes seem to overlook the extreme difficulty and even hazard some followers would face when implementing these corrections.
Notwithstanding my disagreements with her examples, Bad Leadership is a good book with a great focus on two things often overlooked in today’s study of the subject: leadership that is not good, and followership that enables it.
Bob Mason is a speaker, trainer, and author with a passion for good leadership. He uses his 30+ years of leadership experience to help organizations eliminate bad leadership. See what he can do for you at http://www.planleadexcel.com.
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