Bad Leader! Bad! Bad!

Professor Terry Leap is a Professor of Management at Clemson University (a college which holds a special place in my heart due to its gorgeous, bike-friendly campus and it's beautiful, intelligent graduates). He has honed in on white collar crime in at least one book, and he compiled a short list of 'bad qualities' in business leaders or CEOs (for which I regrettably have no current link or reference, but rest assured, the list is his).

Bad leaders can possess one (or all) of the following traits:

An obsession with acquiring prestige, power and wealth.

The obsession with power and wealth is not always an overt display of evil. After all, the savviest leaders never want appear greedy. The craftiest make their greed look like altruism. How is this done? One local business leader might openly complain about how he doesn't have enough money for raises or rewards, but anyone watching the development of his company sees he chooses to put money into material acquisitions, rewarding specific people and departments, throwing parties, and making small renovations on a home property.

A reputation for unwarranted and shameless self promotion.

Self promotion takes many forms, but the most blatant example was a prominent business leader in Florida, running for political office, who strongly encouraged the employees to run the campaign, all the while maintaining a guise of false humility.   

A tendency to propose “grandiose strategies” and failing to include a detailed plan to carry them out.

The time for pronouncement of these 'grandiose strategies' is usually the staff or department meeting. There is a speech generalizing how poorly or how well things are going. There are long, vague promises about a good year ahead. Anyone who has been with the company for a few years knows that each yearly projection is contrived to keep people hoping things will get better, when in fact, they largely stay the same.

A superb ability to compartmentalize and rationalize things.

This compartmentalization is especially evident in the way that questionable use of a company's funding and monetary resources is rationalized. When a promised raise hasn't arrived in over three years, we are talked down from our outrage with a vague description of 'compartmentalization of budgets.' You see, there are budgets compartmentalized for various departments, the budget set aside for yearly raises, the budget that actually doesn't exist. Or so they say. They have money for one thing, but not another. And it's perfectly rationalized.

A history of emphasizing activity, like hours worked or meetings attended, over accomplishment.

This is one of my favorites. A department slacks off all day, but the undone work must still be done. So, this department stays after hours and finishes it then. I see an inefficient and lazy group of spoiled ingrates, but the CEO who emphasizes hours works sees a department working overtime, and therefore, a department saddled with more work and more responsibility than all the others. Meanwhile, the efficient, hard working people who don't leave five or six hours after closing time are off the radar completely. Bad leaders only notice the messy evidence left behind. Bad leaders don't stop to analyze the process. They only have time to glance at the hours worked or the particular face that they have seen, to determine who they feel works the hardest. This can often result in the wrong people being rewarded. 

A reputation for implementing major strategic changes unilaterally or for forcing programs down the throats of reluctant managers.

A bad leader that I knew of during the first dot com boom in the nineties invested in what amounted to unfinished software in the concept stage, and hoisted this conceptual fetus onto a few unfortunate managers. What resulted was a messy cluster of un-kept promises, delayed turnaround times, disappointed clients, and - at least for a time - poor, rushed implementation. This was not the managers' fault, but rather the fault of their leader, who is accountable for keeping a long term view when making decisions like this. 

An impulsive, flippant decision–making style.

The bad leader is the one who takes his panicked inner monologue about the future of his company and the difficulty of running a company, and publicly expresses it for all to hear. This does not inspire confidence or compel people to stay, which is actually what a leader is for. To make things even worse, the worst leaders actually see their most valued allies in those who enable and encourage this unhelpful, uninspiring and childish behavior. 

A love of monologues coupled with poor listening skills.

The bad leader loves to talk about how good or how bad things are, but his view of things is uncolored by the big picture. By 'the big picture,' I mean the way the departments interact, the values and behavior being either intentionally or unintentionally encouraged in the company, and the motivation levels and ideas for growth coming from each respective department. Instead, theirs is a myopic, self-interested series of lectures. Bad leaders can be affable and he can be self-depreciating, but don't let this distract from his megalomania, which is still very much on display.

A tendency to display contempt for the ideas of others.

There is a story of one leader who, when confronted with complaints from an employee he didn't like, began yelling at her and throwing a fit. If you are a bad leader, and someone else's problems don't fit squarely into your view of what you think of your own company, then you, as a bad leader, can merely accuse them of hysteria and ignorance, and throw them out. The best leaders allow themselves to be challenged by the critiques of those who have the 'view from the bottom' and use this to improve the company or agency. The worst leaders can't be bothered to see any view other than the view from the top as the view from which to make any and all decisions, and the view from which to deem some ideas valid, and others worthy of contempt and scorn.

A penchant for inconsiderate acts.

It's safe to say that joking about firing your employees during an uncertain economy, in most cases, is probably inconsiderate. There are obviously cases where this is okay, for instance, if the general tone in an office is jovial and familiar. But, let's assume a company is like most companies - rife with infighting, preferential treatment, and corruption. Is it okay to make jokes about downsizing, punishment and retaliation in front of people who already feel disenfranchised and undervalued? It certainly isn't okay, but some bad leaders engage in this behavior all the time. Anyone who complains is accused of either not having a sense of humor, or just a 'bad fit' for the company culture, and is further devalued.

It would be horrible if all these stories were about the same boss. It would be a nightmare. Could you imagine one boss embodying every one of these poor qualities? The corporate culture stemming from such a sad parade of weaknesses would be so unbearably corrupt and depressing. I can't even imagine.   


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