Bad to worse

Why do bad leaders flourish – and how can they be stopped?

There are countless studies and theories of good leadership. They have fed the global industry in leadership education. But business schools pay scant attention to bad leadership – or so, at least, argues Barbara Kellerman. Her book, Leadership from Bad to Worse: What Happens When Bad Festers, attempts to fill that gap.

Kellerman is a professor of public leadership at Harvard with a background in political science. In line with her training, she regards politics and business as intimately interconnected: bad politicians enable bad business leaders, and vice versa. In both spheres, she argues, bad leaders follow a common trajectory: her thesis is that it is possible to identify four developmental stages that all bad leaders go through.

At the beginning, the leader has a vision of a new future, hugely appealing in the specific context it is being shared – but impossible to achieve. Only the leader has the skills and personality required to achieve the vision. In the second stage, followers join in, buying into the vision. Many of the core followers will be potential ‘bad actors’. In the next phase, the leader and followers embark on a course that is in some way bad. Fourth, they slide from bad to worse. Frustrated by obstacles, the leader and followers extend and expand their commitment to being bad.

Everything hinges, of course, on what one considers bad. Kellerman points out that, traditionally, a bad leader is considered ineffective, or oppressive, or both. There appears to be little disagreement over how to identify an ineffective leader, but Kellerman struggles to come up with a universal definition of what constitutes a morally reprehensible one. The nearest she gets is to argue that within the society in which the leader operates, a bad leader would be considered oppressive. It is easier to find agreement on what constitutes bad behavior in business than in politics. Wrongdoing such as theft, fraud and corruption – the typical crimes of business leaders – are considered immoral in all societies.

The book is written from an American liberal political position, which contributes to an important limitation – an assumption that societal and business change in America is replicated (or soon will be) in the rest of the world. Kellerman writes about the increasing willingness in the West of subordinates to challenge their leaders as an entirely new development, which might surprise a Briton who lived through the Winter of Discontent and the miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, someone brought up within the Confucian tradition is likely to take a very different view of what a good leader or follower ought to be. And context matters – because as Kellerman emphasizes, bad leaders do not emerge in a vacuum. They operate in a unique and specific context, which creates the opportunities that they exploit.

Kellerman emphasizes that followers are critical to the success of any leader: bad followers make it possible for bad leaders to be bad. Interestingly, there are few penalties for being a bad follower, even if the bad leader is deposed, but many advantages in terms of career, money and prestige. Followers of bad business leaders are rarely penalized, except perhaps one or two low-level scapegoats. 

Despite its limitations, Kellerman’s book is a thought-provoking one for anyone concerned about the quality of leadership in business or politics. Her conclusion, though, is a worrying one. She argues that the four developmental stages of bad leaders have a ratchet effect – it is nearly impossible for a leader to revert from being a bad leader to a slightly better one. Instead, they become increasingly powerful and oppressive. The best way to prevent the rise of a bad leader is to stop them early.  

Piers Cain is a management consultant.