The underlying assumption in the “leadership industry” is that leadership, any leadership, is good. Given this axiom, it follows that developing and training leaders is a good thing.
Yet recently, I’ve encountered a number of thinkers who are considering the dark side of leadership. Henry Mintzberg, in his recent book, Management, decries the modern emphasis on leaders, which he believes devalues those who are not leaders.
Barbara Kellerman, in her 2004 book, “Bad Leadership” pulls back the cover on bad leadership. She identifies seven characteristics of bad leadership: incompetence, rigidity, intemperance, callousness, corruptness, insularity, and evil.
Examples of bad leadership abound. Yet we rarely ever talk about the costs of bad leadership. Nor do we talk about the causes of bad leadership. It would be easy to attribute bad leadership exclusively to the leader in question. But I don’t think it is that simple. Western political thought suggests that those who govern must have the consent of the people they govern (see Rousseau or Locke). Leadership theory is also based on this self-same idea that leaders must have the support of those they lead in order to be effective. So, to a certain degree, followers must take responsibility for bad leadership.
As the complexity of our society increases we increasingly see leadership as a solution to the problems our global environment and economy face. This magic bullet will solve poverty, erase war and make everyone happy. Yet this view-point happily ignores that many of our problems come from the very solution we are proposing. That is, many of our problems stem from bad leadership. And today, with interlocking economies and environments, bad leadership decisions are amplified throughout the world. Take for example SARS. The SARS virus spread throughout the world rapidly. Had it been a different type of virus, it could have been the first world-wide pandemic since the 1919 Flu. Part of the reason for the rapid spread of SARS was the inability of the Chinese leadership to respond effectively to the original outbreak of the disease. That bad leadership had consequences for the entire world.
So if we are going to promote leadership as a solution for the world’s problems, perhaps it is time to face up to the consequences of bad leadership? What controls do we need to place on leaders? What is our responsibility as followers to question the behaviours and decisions of our leaders? Are followers responsible for our leaders? Why do we continue to consent to bad leadership?