With a pandemic and all of its attendant human suffering, with economic devastation and so much loss of livelihood and dignity, with painful but overdue and much-needed conversations about structural and systematic racial injustice and inequity, and with so much division, disdain, and distrust, we need good leadership more than ever. Not because it is a cure-all, but because it is a prerequisite for stemming the crises, healing the wounds, and getting us moving in the right direction. Not just leadership at one level, but leadership at all levels of society and organizations. Not top-down, but leadership all around.
Yet too often we encounter not just mediocre but bad or even toxic leadership, the kind that not only fails to match the moment but that takes us in the wrong direction.
David Gergen, senior advisor to four U.S. presidents (from both parties), and author of Eyewitness to Power, wrote, “Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”
No leader is perfect. We all have faults, flaws, blind spots, and shadow sides. But we have to understand and grapple with the problem of bad leadership if we are to figure out what kind of leadership is needed today and to develop the leaders needed for tomorrow.
Bad leadership comes in various degrees, starting with lacking desirable behaviors, moving to missing essential elements, and falling off a cliff when it comes to toxic leadership. We address each in turn below.
There are many things that can “derail” our leadership. We can avoid difficult tasks. We can be a bottleneck on decisions. We can struggle with effective communication, listening, or delegation. We can get caught up in firefighting—reacting to events without moving toward a worthy vision. We can be too hard or too soft (what we call “steel and velvet” in Triple Crown Leadership). We can be overly rational and not sufficiently emotional, or vice versa. We can be impulsive, insecure, or intimidating. We can be overly optimistic or pessimistic. We can be perfectionist, people pleasers, or procrastinators. There are many derailers, and most leaders have multiple derailers. Those willing to learn and develop and can turn to coaches, mentors, advisors, feedback, training, books, and more.
Some modern leadership frameworks can inform this discussion. Authentic leadership from Bill George incorporates purpose, values, commitment to relationships, self-discipline, and heart, and these in turn generate passion, connectedness, consistency, and compassion. It is easy to see how some leaders may struggle in some of these areas.
Servant leadership from Robert Greenleaf emphasizes that the leader’s essential role is to serve others—the team, the organization, the community, the nation, the world. At its best, servant leadership involves listening, empathy, persuasion, stewardship, commitment to people’s growth, and building community. Greenleaf wrote that its best test is this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Again, it is easy to see how many leaders might fall short in some or many of these areas.
Transformational leadership (from James MacGregor Burns, Bernard M. Bass, Bruce Avolio, and others) causes significant change in individuals and social systems. In contrast with transactional leadership, which focuses on exchanges of expediency between leaders and followers via contingent rewards, transformational leadership involves emotional influence, vision and inspirational motivation, stimulation of creativity and reflections on values and beliefs, and consideration of the needs of followers. Clearly, this is a high standard, and many leaders fall short of it.
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations: “for over three decades, there are only four qualities that have always received more than 60 percent of the votes… for the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is
Clearly, leaders who lack honesty, competence, inspiration, and the ability to rise out of the present moment and look forward are not ones who will motivate and bring out the best in their followers. Honesty and credibility were far and away at the top of the list of things people want from their leaders:
“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest.... people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leader’s word can be trusted, that they are personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work, and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
What we want from leaders can be greatly influenced by the context. For example, during a crisis we want leaders who show humanity and grace under pressure; seek credible information from a diverse array of experts; form a brilliant crisis response team; communicate reality, urgency, and hope; make themselves present, visible, and available; maintain radical focus; make big decisions fast; empower leaders at all levels; restore psychological stability as well as financial stability; use purpose and values as a guide; create a sense that people are all in it together; build operating rhythm with small wins; maintain a long-term perspective; and anticipate and shape the “new normal.”
Bad leadership gets much worse in a hurry when leaders are deeply flawed with what I call mega-derailers. In my experience, ego and fear are the mega-derailers that are most pernicious, and that underly many of the other derailers. Cynicism, derision, and hate are also candidates for this list.
In her book, Multipliers, researcher and executive advisor Liz Wiseman notes that some leaders are “diminishers” who stifle others for their own benefit and aggrandizement, as opposed to “multipliers” who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of those around them. Diminishers include:
Importantly, Wiseman notes that there are also “accidental diminishers” who unintentionally shut down the intelligence and potential of others, for example by making others dependent on them by always rescuing them, overwhelming others with a flurry of ideas, consuming all the energy in the room, driving so hard or fast that others become passive spectators, or being so optimistic that others wonder if they appreciate struggles and risks.
Another version of bad leadership takes the benefits of transformational leadership noted above and twists it into pseudo-transformational leadership, which is characterized by self-serving yet inspirational leadership behaviors, discouraging independent thought in followers, and little caring for them. According to leadership scholars Bernard Bass and Ron Riggio, pseudo-transformational leaders are self-consumed, exploitative, and power-oriented, with warped moral values.
Recently, there has been increasing attention given to the “dark side of leadership,” often focused on narcissism (excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, inability to handle criticism, and sense of entitlement), hubris (foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence), and exploitation (taking unfair advantage). To those we can add the scourges of bullying and harassment. And of course there is a long history of authoritarian and autocratic leadership, and unethical and criminal leadership.
Toxic leadership, according to Jean Lipman-Blumen of Claremont Graduate University and author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, is “a process in which leaders, by dint of their destructive behavior and/or dysfunctional personal characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on their followers, their organizations, and non-followers, alike.”
Clearly, there is a range of bad leadership behaviors, ranging from mild to severe, but the important question remains as to why people continue to follow bad or toxic leaders.
Some scholars have written about a “toxic triangle,” a confluence of leader, follower, and environmental factors that facilitate destructive patterns:
For years, many have pointed to the allure of charisma (compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others) and charismatic leadership, with people being seduced by leader characteristics such as wealth, power, or confidence. We can also look at the “psychodynamics of leadership,” including the psychological underpinnings of leaders’ behavior. Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye, Jr. wrote in his book, The Powers to Lead, “People persist in looking for heroic leaders.” Abraham Zaleznik, a leading scholar in this field, asks, “Is the leadership mystique merely a holdover from our childhood—from a sense of dependency and a longing for good and heroic parents?” Many people just long for somebody to come along and fix things, abdicating their own agency and responsibility, and they believe it when some leaders make unrealistic promises.
Ethics scholar Kenneth Goodpaster has done important work that I believe may shed light here. He notes that many leaders and followers get caught up in “teleopathy,” an unbalanced pursuit of purpose (e.g., winning in politics or sports, being a market leader in business, launching a space shuttle by X date), which is driven by fixation on set goals, rationalization of questionable behavior and decisions (e.g., everybody is doing it), and detachment from our personal values as we pursue those aims. I wonder if people are willing to stick with bad or unethical leaders because they are so caught up in winning and will do whatever it takes to prevail.
Our brains (and evolutionary biology) may also be part of the story. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:
“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds…. If you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”
Our brains have evolved to seek and defend tribes, and to be exceptionally good at rationalizing the behaviors and decisions of our tribe (and its leader), a phenomenon that is often unconscious (so exceptionally difficult to defend against).
As we can see, there are many reasons why good people continue to follow bad leaders, and these neurological, psychological, and social phenomena are complex and powerful (and subject to exploitation by savvy operators and marketers).
In the end, we want leaders who add and multiply, not subtract and divide. We want leaders who get great results, with integrity, and sustainably. We want leaders who create more followers and serve the larger good rather than themselves. We want leaders we admire, who make us better, and who call on our better angels. We need better leaders, and we need them now. But most of all, we need to be our own best advocates and changemakers.
Gregg Vanourek (@GVanourek) is an executive and award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership, entrepreneurship, and life and work design. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture focused on leading self, leading others, and leading change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards, and called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a clarion call for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). He specializes in the links between personal and professional excellence and has served as an executive in market-leading organizations.
Today’s Human Resources (HR) leader has a wonderful opportunity to make an important strategic contribution:
Become your organization’s Chief Culture Officer.
If your CEO already acts as the Chief Culture Officer, great. Then you can be his or her Chief Culture Execution Officer. But most CHROs aren’t that fortunate, and you may need some ammunition to persuade the CEO that focusing on building culture can be a source of competitive advantage:
“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.” -Lou Gerstner, former IBM CEO
We think of organizational culture as “how we do things here”: how people behave. Culture forms over time and drives what happens when the bosses are not present. It sets the tone for the organization, the norms for what is acceptable behavior. Culture is a powerful force in determining how an organization operates and whether it succeeds.
Organizations with a toxic culture pay a heavy price in lost revenue, staff attrition, low productivity, damaged reputation, lawsuits, and more. Ego, greed, deceit, conflict, gamesmanship, mistrust, turf wars, backstabbing, and exploitation spawn toxic cultures.
Organizations with a nondescript, non-defined, haphazard culture (perhaps this sounds familiar?) do nothing to help their organizations compete and thrive.
By contrast, organizations with a high-performance culture of character—think of Southwest Airlines, Zappos, Patagonia, DreamWorks, Atlassian, Google, Warby Parker, REI, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Salesforce—set in motion a self-reinforcing, positive, and virtuous cycle with their stakeholders. Employees identify more with the enterprise and bring more of their talents, creativity, and commitment to their work. This healthy culture positively affects profitability, growth, productivity, staff retention, reputation, relationships with customers and suppliers, and more.
A healthy culture by no means guarantees success, but it provides the energy boost and commitment to build an exceptional organization. In a high-performance culture of character, everybody expects excellent, ethical, and enduring performance and impact—what we call “triple crown leadership.”
Culture is the legacy of leadership. A high-performance culture of character is the legacy of triple crown leadership.
So, what can Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) do to help their organizations excel? Here are some suggestions.
1. Become the Chief Culture Officer. Live and breathe culture-building, making it your top priority.
2. Persuade the CEO. Persuade your CEO that culture is critical. Volunteer to lead an effort to make your culture a competitive advantage. You probably don’t need more (or much more) money, time, or staff. You mostly need buy-in (and perhaps cover). Promise periodic updates on progress.
3. Align with Organizational Goals and Strategy. Make sure you have a seat at the goal- and strategy-setting meetings. Align your culture-building efforts to the goals and strategy. If you can’t gain that access immediately, ask another officer for a briefing.
4. Get a Baseline. Conduct a baseline assessment to determine what your current culture is. Your baseline can be as simple as gathering input on these questions: How do we do things here? What are the accepted norms of behavior? On a one-to-five scale, how does this culture contribute to or detract from the achievement of our goals and strategy? Use team meetings, employee interviews, online surveys, and/or town hall meetings to gather data. After a few weeks, you’ll have a good picture of the current culture.
5. Brainstorm and Synthesize the Ideal. Conduct a few sessions with some influential leaders at various levels in the organization. Explore questions like: What is our desired culture? How would we be operating if we were really the best-of-the-best in our field? From this input, you can synthesize a succinct and aspirational statement of your organization’s desired culture in a page or less.
6. Determine How to Fill the Gap. Now it’s time for some brainstorming and innovative thinking from you and your colleagues: “How do we fill the gap between the current culture and our desired culture? What must we do differently?” Be practical and specific. In the process, recruit committed volunteers and allies to begin the cultural transformation. Here are ideas for how to fill the gap:
7. Culture Change Plan. Once you have identified your culture gap fillers, draft a Culture Change Plan. It doesn’t have to be long. Share it with all your colleagues as the road map for culture change.
8. Model It. As Chief Culture Officer, be the exemplar of the desired culture. Everyone will be watching what you do more than what you say. If (when) you slip up, admit it, apologize, and ask for help to improve.
9. Be Resolute. Use your leadership authority and position to insist that everyone operate by the cultural norms you set together. No exceptions, even for top performers. They too must operate by the shared cultural norms or leave. Otherwise, your efforts will be undermined. Our experience is that when toxic superstars depart for values violations, the aggregate performance level of the remaining group actually improves.
10. Appoint Culture Champions. Empower a small group of trusted colleagues across departments to be proactive about culture recommendations and to take independent action. Meet with them often and assess progress. Keep their enthusiasm levels high. You can’t do it all, and you need their leadership.
11. Conduct Periodic Assessments. Monitor the culture through periodic assessments, formal or informal. Culture change is not a one-shot fix. It is a never-ending process that needs time, attention, and leadership.
12. Brief the Leadership Team. Brief the leadership team, including the CEO and board members, quarterly (or even monthly) on what is happening with culture to achieve the corporate goals and strategy. Keep the initiative visible. Downplay your own role, and celebrate what leaders throughout the organization are doing to build the culture.
By creating a high-performance culture, you will engage people, build trust, infuse meaning into people’s work, bring more joy into your workplace, and position the organization for greatness.
Core Concept: Building, a high-performance culture of character is an unappreciated and underused way of helping organizations thrive. The CHRO should lead that effort.
Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Twitter: @TripleCrownLead, @GVanourek.
Gregg Vanourek is a high-impact leadership developer, changemaker, and award-winning author who trains, speaks, teaches, coaches, and consults on leadership, entrepreneurship, and life design.