Is leadership good or bad? Most contemporary leadership resources simply assume that leadership is good. As a result of this, they fail to recognize the reality of bad leadership.
In Bad Leadership, author Linda Kellerman opposes the widely held view “that it is good to be a leader because to be a leader is, ipso facto, to be good” (xv). Kellerman dramatically makes her point by drawing attention to a problem she labels “Hitler’s ghost” (11). “Not only was his impact on twentieth-century history arguably greater than anyone else’s, but also he was brilliantly skilled at inspiring, mobilizing, and directing followers. His use of coercion notwithstanding, if this is not leadership, what is?” (11) Hitler was a skilled leader – clear, effective, and highly influential – but was he good? The answer is obvious.
Leadership, in and of itself, is not necessarily good. There is such a thing as bad leadership. In order to truly develop a philosophy of leadership, this must be recognized: “To deny bad leadership equivalence in the conversation and curriculum [of the leadership industry] is misguided, tantamount to a medical school that would claim to teach health while ignoring disease.” (11)
It is the phenomenon of bad leadership that Kellerman analyzes in her book. She summarizes her contribution: “I describe how we exercise power, authority, and influence in ways that do harm. This harm is not necessarily deliberate. It can be the result of carelessness or neglect. But this does not make it less injurious, and in some cases calamitous” (xiii). Her ultimate intention is to better answer the question: “What is to be done to maximize good leadership and minimize bad leadership?” (xvi)
Of course, leaders – whether good or bad – cannot exist without followers. Kellerman rightly places some responsibility on the followers that empower and enable bad leaders. She asks, “Why do we follow bad leadership who behave badly?” The answer: bad followers. This answer begs a follow-up question: “Why do bad followers exist?” Her answer: Bad followers exist because “[e]ven bad leaders often satisfy our most basic human needs, in particular, safety, simplicity, and certainty” (22). She continues: “Groups go along with bad leaders because even bad leaders often provide important benefits. In particular, leaders maintain order, provide cohesion and identity, and do the collective work” (23-24).
Because bad followers enable bad leaders, “[l]eaders should be looked at only in tandem with their followers” (226). The phenomenon of bad leadership arises from the combination of both bad leaders and bad followers. “Without followers nothing happens, including bad leadership. Together, leaders and followers can bring out the best in people… or they can amplify what’s worst in people” (226). Thus, “[l]eaders and followers share responsibility for leadership, bad as well as good” (226).
Having determined that bad leaders and bad followers exist, Kellerman begins her analysis of bad leadership. “Bad leadership falls into two categories: bad as in ineffective and bad as in unethical.” (32) The first category of bad leadership – ineffective leadership – “fails to produce the desired change. For reasons that include missing traits, weak skills, strategies badly conceived, and tactics badly employed, ineffective leadership falls short of its intention” (33). The second category – unethical leadership – “fails to distinguish between right and wrong” (34).
She then lists seven types of bad leadership: incompetent, rigid, intemperate, callous, corrupt, insular, and evil (38). Generally speaking, “the first three types of bad leadership tend to be bad as in ineffective, and the last four types tend to be bad as in unethical” (39). Following are her expanded descriptions of each type of bad leadership:
- “INCOMPETENT - The leader and at least some followers lack the will or skill (or both) to sustain effective action. With regard to at least one important leadership challenge, they do not create positive change. (40)” “Incompetent leaders are not necessarily incompetent in every aspect. Moreover, there are many ways of being incompetent. Some leaders lack practical, academic, or emotional intelligence. Others are careless, dense, distracted, slothful, or sloppy, or they are easily undone by uncertainty and stress, unable effectively to communicate, educate, or delegate, and so on.” (40)
- “RIGID: The leader and at least some of his followers are stiff and unyielding. Although they may be competent, they are unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas, new information or changing times” (41).
- “INTEMPERATE: The leader lacks self-control and is aided and abetted by followers who are unwilling or unable effectively to intervene.” (42)
- “CALLOUS: The leader and at least some followers are uncaring or unkind. Ignored or discounted are the needs, wants, and wishes of most members of the group or organization, especially subordinates.” (43)
- “CORRUPT: The leader and at least some followers lie, cheat, or steal. To a degree that exceeds the norm, they put self-interest ahead of the public interest.” (44)
- “INSULAR: The leader and at last some followers minimize or disregard the health and welfare of ‘the other’ – that is, those outside the group or organization for which they are directly responsible.” (45)
- “EVIL: The leader and at least some followers commit atrocities. They use pain as an instrument of power. The harm done to men, women, and children is severe rather than slight. The harm can be physical, psychological, or both.” (46)
Bad leaders are bad because they are either ineffective or unethical – or both. Therefore, “Ideal leaders and followers are, at the same time, effective and ethical” (219). However, because leaders can fail in only one area, “it’s possible for leaders, and followers, to be simultaneously effective and unethical… And it’s also possible for leaders, and followers, to be simultaneously ethical and ineffective” (219, 220).
Integrating Scripture with Kellerman’s Insights
The Scriptures certainly recognize the reality of bad leadership. Leaders must meet certain requirements – both moral and skill-related – in order to qualify as spiritual leaders (1 Timothy 3:1-14; Titus 1:5-16; 1 Peter 5:1-5; cf. Acts 20:17-35).
Bad leaders are recognized as unethical. For example, Paul opposes the “super-apostles” who fail to live in accordance with the message of Christ (2 Corinthians 10-12). They were certainly effective – gifted, skilled, and authoritative – yet they were unethical in their personal dealings. Even the devil is recognized as possessing positive qualities – intelligence, strategies, and effectiveness – even though these qualities are ultimately used to oppose rather than further God’s will.
Kellerman’s seven types are very helpful in describing the qualities of bad leadership. Further insights on good leadership can be gained by considering their opposites. Good leadership is competent in contrast to incompetent; flexible rather than rigid; temperate instead of intemperate; sensitive rather than callous; pure in contrast to corrupt; available instead of insular; and good rather than evil. The Scriptures provide helpful definitions and examples of each of these positive qualities.
Kellerman’s distinction between ethical and effective leadership is also very helpful. It is quite possible that ethical leadership may prove ultimately ineffective. Doing God’s will is given preeminence in spiritual leadership, regardless of whether it produces results or not. Thus, even though efficiency is a valuable trait and effectiveness is treasured, pragmatism must not drive spiritual leaders. There is no place for effectiveness at the expense of unethical conduct. In other words, the means of leadership is just as important as the motivation and goal. For this reason, truly good spiritual leadership must put a priority on ethical conduct.
Perhaps one way to maintain the priority of the ethical over the effective (obviously, without disregarding this altogether) is to maintain one unique quality of leadership that Jesus puts forward in his training of his disciples.
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)
At the root of Kellerman’s analysis of leadership is this assumption: “the single best explanation for why leaders lead and followers follow: self-interest” (17). In regard to most areas of life, her insight is valid. However, in respect to ecclesial life and mission, another explanation must take priority. Leaders lead and followers follow in the Church not merely out of self-interest, but for the purpose of fulfilling God’s interests. In other words, the fulfillment of God’s will – not self-interest – takes preeminence in the Church community.
At times, this stance appears to be opposed to our own self-interests – both personally and corporate. Yet, we are called to deny ourselves. We live God’s will by dying with Christ. We obey God’s will by surrendering our own desires to God. In short, even though fulfilling God’s will is the best thing we can do for our own good, we must not be driven by our own personal or corporate will to the exclusion of God’s will. When we do so, we negate our very mission – our very reason to be – and become bad leaders and bad followers.
Quotes excerpted from Bad Leadership by Linda Kellerman
Review © Richard J. Vincent, 2006