• Archive

Beware the Bad Leader

Leaders and followers are often locked in a complicated dance, says Barbara Kellerman, author of the new book Bad Leadership and a research director at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Q&A.

"This book is about the dark side of the human condition. It paints leadership in shades of gray—and in black." So begins Barbara Kellerman's new book Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters. Kellerman makes the case that "leadership" as a phenomenon need not imply that a leader is by nature someone wise and inspirational. Rather, she says, we should better understand the sometimes darker forces that may drive leaders as well as their followers.

Martha Lagace: Almost all leadership books focus on good leadership. You make the argument that leadership as a subject needs to be viewed as a complex whole. What interests you about bad leadership?

Barbara Kellerman: Anyone not living in a cave can see that bad leadership is as ubiquitous as it is insidious. This is not to say that bad leadership is more prevalent than good leadership, any more than we would say that bad people are greater in number than good people. But it is to argue that human nature is complex and nuanced, as prone to be revealed in shades of gray and black as in white.

Given this, and given that bad leadership in both the public and private sectors has never been more blatantly in evidence, the question you ask might then be a different one. In other words, to me the interesting issue is not why I, in particular, am fascinated by bad leadership, but rather why the leadership field has been so rich with work on good leadership, and so barren of work on bad leadership.

Q: What characteristics of style, personality, and motivation do bad leaders and good leaders have in common?

A: Curiously, counterintuitively, bad leaders are more similar to good leaders than they are different. But, as Bad Leadership makes clear, characteristics of style, personality, and motivation must be looked at, and understood, in the context within which they matter.

As it turns out, one can conclude from the investigation that underpins this book that the "trait approach" to leadership, derided in recent years as simplistic and outdated, is in fact more powerful than we're now disposed to admit. This is to say that like good leaders, bad leaders are generally characterized by traits such as intelligence, a high level of energy, a strong drive for power and achievement, decisiveness, and determination. And, initially at least, bad leaders, like their better-equipped and/or disposed counterparts, have a skill set that ranges from being good at communicating to being good at decision making. The key questions then are: When, and where, and how, do things go wrong, sometimes even gravely wrong?

Q: Tell us a little more about the business leaders you focused on. They're all different people, of course, but what can we take away from their individual stories?

A: I focus on several business leaders, including Al Dunlap, Mary Meeker, Andrew Fastow, Jill Barad, Lee Raymond, and Leona Helmsley. The ways in which leaders are "bad" differ enormously. In fact, one of the main reasons I wrote this book is to break up the universe of bad leadership in ways that bring some measure of economy and coherence to the extraordinarily dense subject.

To this end, and after looking at hundreds of cases of bad leadership, I describe what I came to decipher as seven different types of bad leadership. They are: Incompetent, Rigid, Intemperate, Callous, Corrupt, Insular, and Evil. I go into this here because the lessons to be learned from Incompetent leaders are, as you can imagine, not the same as those to be learned from Evil leaders. There are, however, a few rules that apply in virtually every case, one of which I'll state now. Every one of the stories told in my book points to the importance of the follower. Put simply, there is no bad leadership without bad followership.

Q: In a fast-paced, aggressive business setting, how can a manager avoid getting sucked into the vortex of a superior who is a bad leader? What are the typical characteristics of "bad followers" and how can a person resist and avoid falling into the typical habits of bad followers?

A: Like bad leaders, bad followers fall into several different groups. That is, we make a mistake if we lump followers together, as if they were all one and the same.

Let me give you an example. The case of Al Dunlap and his tenure at Sunbeam is by now fairly well known. But, since we seem always to fall into the trap of focusing laser-like on the leader, what is much less well understood is the role in this miserable drama played by Dunlap's followers. His followers fell into several different groups which included: the large, inchoate group of investors who held Sunbeam stock; Sunbeam's employees, the rank and file; Sunbeam's Board; and those who suffered from Dunlap's callous leadership on a near-daily basis, his up-close and personal management team.

As Bad Leadership makes clear, the way to avoid getting sucked into the vortex of a superior who is a bad leader depends at least in good part on understanding the nature of your role. Some managers are high up the corporate ladder, and therefore have options different from those available to managers lower down the hierarchy. There are, however, a few truths that apply in every case. Perhaps paramount among them is this: For a follower to resist a bad leader ain't easy. It's hard, and sometimes risky.

Q: How can we in business and society make sure there is less bad leadership and more good leadership? One suggestion you've made is to limit the tenure of leaders in general so they don't have a chance to go sour.

A: As you say, one suggestion I make is to limit the tenure of leaders, whether this constraint is imposed by the leaders themselves or by the groups and organizations in which they're embedded.

But the final point I want to make is this. As I suggest in my concluding chapter, there are in fact ways in which we in business and society can work to minimize bad leadership and maximize good leadership. It is a responsibility that falls on leaders and followers alike, which is precisely why I provide a range of strategies and tactics for the two different audiences. The whole point of Bad Leadership is to attack bad leadership—just as we would a disease that is always pernicious, and sometimes even deadly.

[ Buy this book ]

Barbara Kellerman is Research Director of the Center for Public Leadership and Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She served as the Center's Executive Director from 2000-2003. Kellerman has held professorships at Fordham, Tufts, Fairleigh Dickinson, George Washington, and Uppsala universities.

Excerpt from Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters

by Barbara Kellerman

Leaders: Self-Help

The following corrections suggest how leaders can strengthen their personal capacity to be at once effective and ethical.

  • Limit your tenure. When leaders remain in positions of power for too long, they tend to acquire bad habits. For example, they are increasingly prone to become complacent and grandiose, to overreach, to deny reality, and to lose their moral bearings. Samaranch and Aramony were chief executives for two decades or more. Both should have left earlier—and Barry should have quit the mayor's office after his second term.

  • Share power. When power is centralized, it is likely to be misused, and that puts a premium on delegation and collaboration. The advice Mary Meeker gave affected the financial decisions of many people; still, she worked alone. Similarly, Al Dunlap was a corporate tyrant who brought Sunbeam down at least in part because of his refusal to work with others in any meaningful way.

  • Don't believe your own hype. Samaranch ruled the Olympic movement as if it were his own fiefdom. Meeker seemed actually to believe she was queen of the Net. And Dunlap was in thrall to the portraits of himself as "Rambo" and "Chainsaw Al." For leaders to buy their own publicity is the kiss of death.

  • Get real, and stay real. Virtually every bad leader named in this book lost touch with reality to some degree. Samaranch blocked out the fact that corruption had crept into the Olympic movement. Meeker came to believe that the history of markets was irrelevant to the "New Economy." Barry dismissed his addiction to coke. Dunlap never understood that his callousness was self-destructive. Aramony did not grasp that he had morphed into a liar and thief. Clinton came to conclude that genocide was a problem the United States could choose to ignore. And Karadzic considered crimes against humanity justified as long as they were committed against Bosnian Muslims.7

  • Compensate for your weaknesses. When he came into office Clinton knew that his strength was domestic policy and his weakness was foreign policy. So when Rwanda became a crisis, he should have made it a point to surround himself with experts on Africa. At a lower level of importance, Meeker should have made it a point to acquire in-depth knowledge about stocks other than the tech issues she had long followed and favored.

  • Stay balanced. More than a few leaders named in this book were famous workaholics, far more dedicated to their jobs than they were to family and friends. This is a danger. As Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, points out, "Balanced leaders develop healthier organizations." They make more thoughtful decisions and lead more effectively.8

  • Remember the mission. Arguably, this matters most when the group or organization is dedicated to public service. Samaranch lost sight of the original Olympic ideal, and Aramony of the fact that the United Way of America was a charitable association.

  • Stay healthy. Marion Barry is an egregious example of a leader whose physical and mental health was impaired throughout most of his time in public office. He should have sought professional help.

  • Develop a personal support system. All of us should have aides, associates, friends, or family members who will save us from ourselves. Every leader named in this book would have benefited from tough love.

  • Be creative. The past should never determine the future nor narrow the available options. If Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the prime minister of India, and General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, have the imagination to break from the past and restart peace talks between their two countries, then Clinton could have helped to create a resolution to the crisis in Rwanda.

  • Know and control your appetites. These include the hunger for power (Karadzic), money (Dunlap), success (Meeker), and sex (Barry).

  • Be reflective. Virtually every one of the great writers on leadership—Plato, Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha—emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge, self-control, and good habits. But we have seen that acquiring and sustaining such virtues is hard. Intent is required, but so is time for quiet contemplation.

Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business School Press. Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters by Barbara Kellerman. Copyright © 2004 Barbara Kellerman. All Rights Reserved.


7. For more on leaders' cognitive biases, see Michael Watkins and Max Bazerman, "Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming," Harvard Business Review, March 2003, 74.

8. Bill George, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003) 46.