As a newsroom intern in the summer of 1986, I met a boogeyman disguised as an executive producer. On my swing shift, this person was the leader, and I was the frequent target of this person’s frustration and anger (I was an intern and still learning). Also in a leadership role each night, an anchor who (I thought) embodied everything I aspired to as a journalist. By the end of the summer, they taught me a lot about the business. I learned the difference between writing for radio vs. writing for television, I learned video editing and other mechanics of the job. However, they also taught me exactly how not to treat people. They showed me the misery leaders, either official or unofficial, could inflict on subordinates. They said things to co-workers that would get them hauled in front of HR these days and mentored their young reports through humiliation and sarcasm. One of them was ineffective, and the other was unethical. While some young journalists might have planned a jump to another industry after such an experience, these two did me a huge favor. They provided my first examples of the kind of leader I would never allow myself to be.
Thomas Aquinas called this, “negative judgment of separation”.
Bad leadership saps the vitality out of organizations and careers. Understanding why and how this happens has been the aim of everyone from social psychologists to communication scholars and more recently neuroscientists. In a review of research projects on the topic of poor leadership, Barbara Kellerman’s book, Bad Leadership, breaks down most simply the two main categories of poor leadership: ineffective or unethical. “The distinction is not a theoretical construct. Rather, it is based on the empirical evidence” (Kellerman, 2004 p. 32). Simply put, “…ineffective leadership falls short of its intention because of the means leaders employ or fail to employ. …unethical leadership…fails to distinguish between right and wrong in achieving these goals” (Gini and Green, p. 146).
Using Kellerman’s studies, several academic essays on bad leadership and the bluntly titled book by Robert Sutton of Stanford University, The No Asshole Rule ( a personal favorite), I will outline the weapons of mass dysfunction used by bad leaders and the effects felt by employees and organizations.
Leaders without proper skills, “…violate the most elementary principles of leadership: creating vision, direction and clear performance expectations. A lack of vision and direction causes confusion and uncertainty among employees about where they are headed and what they are trying to accomplish” (Longnecker 2011). Ambiguity creates anxiety and who can excel in their job if they’re anxious?
A lack of vision is the first weapon of mass dysfunction, as employees without a clear understanding of the purpose of an organization can never trust they are heading in the right direction. The company may have slogans and rules but without vision, the leadership is ineffective and the employee is left feeling groundless or worse, oppressed. “The oppressors are the ones who act upon the people to indoctrinate them and adjust them to a reality which must remain untouched” (Freire 1972). Ineffective leadership is also crisis-driven as reported in a study of 187 seasoned business leaders across the United States and reported in the journal of Industrial Management. “…the bad bosses described in this study were not adept at planning, whether it was operational, tactical or strategic…lack of anticipation and planning led bad bosses to be described as firefighters, self-induced crisis managers or panic mongers” (Longnecker 2011).
Lack of vision is joined by lack of communication and poor planning to complete the trifecta of ineffective leadership. “Operating…where there is little or no feedback…can have a debilitating effect on employee performance. When business leaders are unwilling to listen…they are not in a position to understand what is happening” (Longnecker 2011).
While ineffective leadership fails due to lack of skill, “…unethical leadership fails to distinguish between right and wrong. Because common codes of decency and good conduct are in some way violated” (Kellerman, 2004). Unethical leadership is given another name by Stanford Professor Robert Sutton in his book, The No Asshole Rule. The first weapon of dysfunction in the unethical leader is the treatment of subordinates. “Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful” (Sutton, 2000)?
Other unethical traits mentioned in the book range from personal insults to acts meant to humiliate employees. A 2003 survey by the American Health Care Association of nursing home employee turnover showed, “…where workplace harassment is tolerated, where employees feel undervalued and treated with disrespect, productivity suffers and turnover rates are high” (Baer 2006). While Sutton generalizes unethical behavior into the category of, “asshole”, Kellerman breaks down unethical leadership into sub-categories: Rigid, intemperate, callous, corrupt, insular and evil.
A mentor of mine has said to me more than once, “People do not leave bad companies, they leave bad managers”.
The effect of bad leadership on subordinates ranges from oppression to resignation. However, even under bad leadership, subordinates often try to work within the dysfunction. Sutton outlines a survival guide in his book to help employees work with a poor leaders while studies in the 1980s done by the Centre for Creative Leadership suggest employees can play a role in mitigating bad leadership. “…problems of the destructive elements of narcissistic leadership may be avoided or minimized by finding a trusted colleague to keep them anchored in reality” (Higgs, 2009).
Organizations suffer from bad leadership in loss of productivity, loss of institutional knowledge due to employees resigning and in some case irreparable damage to the organization. “The high profile implosions of some organizations (Enron, Tyco, Worldcom) provide extreme examples of this” (Higgs, 2009).
While poor leadership can be described in hundreds of ways, each characterization identified in research can be classified as either ineffective or unethical. It is a sad reality that some leaders are both ineffective and unethical. This bad leadership installs, “…a barrier in the relationship between these bosses and their direct reports. This barrier can cause employees to minimize contact, avoid their superiors altogether, fail to share information and withhold their opinions about what really is going on in the organization” (Longnecker 2011). Lack of vision, poor planning and poor communication is joined by bad treatment of subordinates, narcissism and corruption. Together, these traits as a leader are the weapons of mass dysfunction in any organization.
Freire, P., & Ramos, M. B. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.
Gini, A., & Green, R. M. (2012). Bad leaders/misleaders. Journal of the Center for Business Ethics, 117(2), 143-154. Retrieved September 8, 2014.
Higgs, M. (2009). The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Leadership and Narcissism. Journal of Change Management, 9(2), 165-178.
Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Longenecker, C. O. (2011). Characteristics of really bad bosses. Industrial Management, 10-15. Retrieved September 8, 2014.
No asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t [MP3]. (2007).
Sutton, R. I. (2007). The no asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t. New York: Warner Business Books.