Book Review: Can Studying Bad Leadership Be Good?

All leadership books have one thing in common: They assume the leader is pure of heart and wants the organization to succeed.

Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters
By Barbara Kellerman
Harvard Business School Press, Aug. 2004
256 pages, $26.95

The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians—and How We Can Survive Them
By Jean Lipman-Blumen
Oxford University Press, Sept. 2004
320 pages, $30.00

All leadership books—whether they advise you to be a "servant leader" or a General Patton—have one thing in common: They assume the leader is pure of heart and wants the organization to succeed. Yet simply reading the daily business headlines belies this claim, as senior manager after senior manager is led away in handcuffs. It is easy to dismiss these newly minted jailbirds as aberrations, but is there something to be gained by studying their bad deeds?

Yes, say two new books. In Bad Leadership, Kellerman, the research director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, begins by dividing awful leaders into seven categories: callous, corrupt, incompetent, insular, intemperate, rigid or downright evil. Of course, the distinctions are almost arbitrary. The endless parade of people who oversaw the demise of AT&T, for example, could be classified as either incompetent or rigid, or both.

But Kellerman's bigger point remains valid. With the exception of being evil, leaders fail thanks to specific character flaws, and you as a leader need to guard against all of them. Kellerman offers a number of tips to do just that—as does Lipman-Blumen, author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders and a professor at Claremont Graduate University's School of Management—from don't believe your own hype to widening the number of people you consult in order to increase the odds of getting more honest feedback.

At the same time, leadership tends to magnify a person's character traits—both good and bad. As Lipman-Blumen writes, "Saints rarely . . . enter the rough-and-tumble of politics or the corporate world." Whatever flaws are inherent in us grow larger as we gain power. It is not that being a leader makes certain people intemperate or rigid. It is that those traits were present all along. That is something to be aware of no matter where you rank in the organization.

Lipman-Blumen focuses on why we follow leaders who are incompetent— or worse. "We may grouse about toxic leaders, but frequently we tolerate them—and for surprisingly long periods of time," she writes.

We follow bad leaders primarily for one simple reason, she explains. They calm our fears, fears that could range from being insignificant to being downsized to not knowing how to deal with the changing world around us. In exchange, we are willing to ignore their often substantial flaws.

If you are hiring a leader, you must assume traits like hubris will only grow worse if you give them a top job. If you are in charge, you need to hold yourself accountable. And if you work for these people, you need to point out their shortcomings—at the risk of your job—or leave.

Paul B. Brown is the author of numerous business books, including the international bestseller Customers for Life (written with Carl Sewell) published by Doubleday.

This article was originally published on 10-01-2004
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