5 Strategies When Bad Leadership Happens
Talking about bad leadership is not common. In fact, we avoid the topic like it’s the “elephant” in the room at the consequence of focusing on the good.
Yet, there is tremendous learning when looking at the shadow side of leadership.
Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance politician and author of The Prince, said that the only bad leader is a weak leader. He was ruthless and thought it was better to be feared than loved and this fear was maintained by a “dread of punishment.”
Can Machiavelli still be considered a leader in light of tyrannical behaviors?
How about Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of Volkswagen, a demanding and authoritarian boss who didn’t like failure – he built a culture reflecting these characteristics. And he got caught during the emissions scandal. A leader?
Is bad leadership still leadership and are bad leaders still leaders? Yes, they are.
Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman sees bad leaders as ineffective, someone who does not produce the changes desired by followers. Bad leaders are incompetent, unethical, rigid, insular, callous, corrupt, lack self-control, fail to distinguish right and wrong, and can be self-absorbed caring only about their own interests.
What are the signs of bad leadership? What are the consequences?
Increasing your awareness is an important step to recognize bad leadership. Whether you think you may be in this situation or you have observed it firsthand.
Signs of bad leadership are nuanced while others are overt.
Subtle behaviors include facial expressions (i.e., smirking) or not so subtle, rolling of the eyes. Turning ones back on another or dismissing ideas are other signs. Over time, these behaviors take an emotional toll – both on the individual and the culture.
Researchers (May, Wesche, Heinitz, Kerschreiter, 2014) who have studied the topic found that all sorts of coping skills arise in an effort to manage one’s emotions. These range from how they choose to approach or avoid the person all-together.
The costs of bad leadership are expensive. Wells Fargo, for example, has paid about $300 million in fines and pre-settlement investigative costs and losses of nearly $6 billion in shareholder value for mismanagement.
Poor leadership that is seen by employees and tolerated by senior leadership comes at the cost of credibility. Word about poor leader behavior quickly spreads among peers and in the industry. This causes undue harm and becomes increasingly hard to change perceptions, even when corrective action is taken.
Consequences of bad leadership negatively impact brand. The cost of a two-pack EpiPen kit at the pharmaceutical firm Mylan, rose from $100 to more than $600. It was widely seen as price gouging. Bresch, who headed the company at the time responded, “I am running a business to make money”, in response to critics and enraging customers. Clearly, a lack of awareness and empathy were on display.
The world is full of bad leaders. What can be done about it? Rather than be passive, engage with the situation in pro-active ways.
5-strategies to put you in the driver’s seat with someone with bad leadership skills.
- Keep your awareness “antenna” high. Engage the situation with alertness. Become astute of your behaviors and reactions when engaging the individual. You might be surprised what’s going on if you are not already in tune.
- Keep boundaries in check. As awareness increases, set appropriate boundaries; stay focused and be direct. Don’t try to “fix” others.
- Practice perspective-taking. Recognize that this may be isolated or it reflects the culture at large; in either case, see beyond the immediate.
- Listen and engage. Talk to colleagues to keep reality in check. Gauge if the situation is exaggerated or if you are on target. Talk with trusted colleagues.
- Determine a course of action. Use your awareness to spur change. Decide if it makes sense to engage the individual or if another tact is appropriate. Don’t be a victim. Ask questions, engage, and work with the discomfort.
If you work for a manager who consistently exhibits bad leadership, and these and other strategies have been tired, it may be time to move on.
Good leadership requires a commitment, both from the leaders and their followers. This is especially true for organizations experiencing high change and uncertainty. Stay alert and go forth with eyes-wide open.