Bad Leadership

"How did leadership come to be synonymous with good leadership? Why are we afraid to acknowledge, much less admit to, the dark side?"

- Bad Leadership, location 193

Reading about good leadership can be an energizing activity. It’s inspiring to think about best practices and learn from admirable leaders. In contrast, reading about bad leadership requires a strong resolve and is best not done at bedtime.

That said, Barbara Kellerman’s book provides a useful examination of bad leadership – useful in that an understanding of bad leadership and its damaging effects is necessary to really understanding good leadership. If we ignore bad leadership, how can we counter it?

Bad Leadership covers the spectrum from incompetence to evil, from ineffective to unethical. It also considers context, motivations, and conditions, including the perspective of followers.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The Dynamics of Bad Leadership

"The mixture of the ineffective and the unethical in bad leadership can never be known or measured precisely. This is a truth of the human condition. The important tasks then are to develop a greater awareness of the dynamics of bad leadership, and a better understanding of the different ways that leaders’ actions can be both ineffective and unethical."
- Bad Leadership, location 665

Kellerman has determined that bad leadership falls into seven groups: Incompetent, Rigid, Intemperate, Callous, Corrupt, Insular, and Evil. The groupings move along a spectrum that begins with incompetence and moves progressively into the unethical realm.

Starting with the more benign, she itemizes conditions that lead to incompetence: lack of experience, lack of education, lack of expertise, lack of drive, lack of energy, lack of intelligence, lack of stability, lack of emotional intelligence. It is clear; incompetence exists primarily because something is lacking. Incompetent leaders can be effective up to a point, but would need to be willing to change when the circumstances require it if they wish to become effective leaders.

Kellerman also itemizes some of the motivations that lead to bad leadership: power, greed, self-interest ahead of the public interest. As we move along the spectrum of groupings, what’s evident is a desire for more: more power, more money, more control, more self-interest. Kellerman concludes that leaders who cannot or will not control their desire for more will be bad leaders.

The author offers examples of several well-known bad leaders, ranging from Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former president of the IOC whose sloppy management led to widespread corruption of the Olympic Games, to Radovan Karadzic, who personified evil leadership as the first president of the Bosnian Serb administration.

I’d wager that pretty much everyone has experienced the effect of bad leadership of one form or another. Some of us even bear the scars of those experiences! And so, when reading these stories, I couldn’t help but consider examples from my own career. Kellerman’s analysis of bad leadership helped me gain insights and perspective for my own situation. In that sense, reading the book was, surprisingly, personally therapeutic.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life


"We can make two important assumptions. First, when leaders commit atrocities and still stay in power for years on end, their followers are anesthetized, inflamed, or terrorized—or they are in some way rewarded. Second, when leaders are evil, at least some followers are also evil."
- Bad Leadership, location 3223

Whether The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings, the classic story arc of overcoming the monster always portrays an evil leader who threatens the protagonist’s homeland. The central character ultimately takes on and defeats the evil overlord, and yet, along the way, many evil characters are encountered and thwarted. The road to the primary doer of evil is paved with followers who are likewise evil. It’s a familiar plot.

Kellerman makes an easily understood point: Bad leaders would be powerless without willing or compliant followers. And unethical bad leaders require followers who are also unethical and evil.

Without followers, nothing happens, including bad leadership. Together, bad leaders and followers can bring out the worst in people and leave behind much damage.

As Kellerman observes, “getting along by going along is one of life’s earliest lessons”.  By and large, we want to get along, we do what we’re told and we play by the rules. “We follow because the cost of not following, more often than not, is high.” It can be the cost of job loss or demotion, reputation damage, or being condemned for being a whistle-blower.

Kellerman argues that followers of evil leaders are also evil. And that even after evil leaders move on, their evil can remain embedded in an organization. If evil has become systemic, then the removal or departure of the primary bad leader will not resolve the problem.

My takeaway is that moving on from an evil workplace might be the best strategy for survival.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Lessons Learned

"Leaders who do not look after the interests of their followers are not only unethical but ineffective."
- Bad Leadership, location 639

Thankfully, Kellerman devotes a good chunk of her book to suggestions for how leaders can strengthen their personal capacity to be a good leader, one who is effective and ethical. The cautionary tales of incompetent leaders and terrifying tales of unethical leaders present a strong driver to pay attention to her advice on how to be a good leader!

One such piece of advice is to limit your tenure within one leadership role. When leaders remain in positions of power for too long, they tend to acquire bad habits.

Advice particularly relevant to those of us who work in a public service sector: Remember the mission; don’t lose sight of the mission of your organization. Be loyal to the whole and not to any single individual. “Share power. When power is centralized, it is likely to be misused, and that puts a premium on delegation and collaboration.” And ensure transparency, open discussions and meaningful participation of all members of the organization and its stakeholders.

On the personal care front, Kellerman advises to stay healthy, be creative, and develop a personal support system. She further advises to be reflective; never lose sight of the importance of self-knowledge, self-control and good habits.

“Balanced leaders develop healthier organizations.” They make more thoughtful decisions and lead more effectively.

Kellerman posits that we promote good leadership by not ignoring bad leadership. To understand bad leadership, to decode and decipher it, and then to attack it as we would any disease is essential. She states, “If we have any hope of moving from bad leadership to better leadership, we must strike a balance between looking at the light and seeing in the dark”.

The cost of bad leadership is extremely high. Besides the pain and suffering of those who are victimized by bad leadership, and the ripple effects on their circle of colleagues, family and friends, there is a profound and lingering impact on an organization. The systematic and intentional eradication of bad leadership should be a priority for any organization; the costs of bad leadership are that high.

Looking into the dark was a difficult exercise for me, but a useful one. It instilled in me a greater appreciation for the necessity and the light of good leadership.

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Jacqueline van Dyk

ABOUT Jacqueline van Dyk

As a chief librarian, I'm passionate about libraries, collaboration and life-long learning. Life brings serendipity; I started out as a visual arts major...
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