Harvard Business School Press, 282 pages, $40.95
The Allure of Toxic Leaders
Oxford, 303 pages, $34.95
Reading Walter Isaacson’s interminable but also always fascinating biography of Steve Jobs, I was mulling over the question of how someone who was such a bad leader could be such a fantastic leader, and how his bipolar leadership played out in the lives of subordinates, some who clung to him and others who left him, at least for a time, deeply wounded.
It led me to think some more about the ideas in professor Nassir Ghaemi’s book A First-Rate Madness, which I reviewed two months ago and posited an inverse law of sanity: in times of crisis, we are better led by mentally ill leaders than by mentally normal ones; in times of non-crisis, however, mentally ill leaders will get us in trouble, and mentally stable leaders fare better.
However, while the crisis part applied to Jobs – who seems to have had narcissistic personality disorder, and was successful in founding his company and resurrecting it from its mid-80s collapse – the non-crisis part doesn’t apply, since he was successful in good times for his company as well. I then happened to come across two books from 2004 that seem worth sharing, because they also help to shed understanding on Jobs, his followers, other leaders we have met, and ourselves as followers.
The first, Bad Leadership, was by Harvard University professor Barbara Kellerman, an illuminating look at failed leadership. After looking at hundreds of contemporary cases of bad leadership, she came up with seven classifications:
- Incompetent: The leader and at least some followers lack the will or skill to sustain effective action. With regard to at least one important leadership challenge, they do not create positive change. Her prime example: Juan Antonio Samaranch, in his later years heading the International Olympic Committee.
- Rigid: The leader and at least some followers are stiff and unyielding, unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas, new information or changing times. Example: financial analyst Mary Meeker, who couldn’t adapt to the downturn in the tech market and told her legion of followers to hold on to their stock when the market plummeted.
- Intemperate: The leader lacks self-control and is aided and abetted by followers who are unwilling or unable effectively to intervene. Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin is cited, but she focuses instead on former Washington Mayor Marion Barry Jr., for a time a crack cocaine and sex addict.
- Callous: The leader and at least some followers are uncaring and unkind, ignoring or discounting the wants and wishes of most members of the organization. Chainsaw Al Dunlap, the former CEO of Sunbeam Corp., is the poster boy.
- Corrupt: The leader and at least some followers lie, cheat or steal, putting their private interest ahead of the public interest by an unacceptable level. Her example: William Aramony, once the highly respected head of the United Way of America, who was caught stealing from the organization.
- Insular: The leader and at least some followers minimize or disregard the health and welfare of people outside the group. Example: Bill Clinton and his foreign policy team, when they ignored the genocide in Rwanda.
- Evil: The leader and at least some followers commit atrocities, using pain as an instrument of power. Example: former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.
That’s about more than Mr. Jobs, of course, but an excellent typology on bad leadership. What’s particularly helpful in her work, however, is that she doesn’t just look at bad leaders. She looks at bad followers. And, more importantly, she says that we must not see bad leadership and good leadership as inherently different. She castigates us for not being willing to consider the possibility that the dynamic between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his followers had anything in common with the dynamic between Adolph Hitler and his most devoted followers, or to consider that a celebrated CEO and disgraced CEO may have similar capabilities.
She calls such avoidance “Hitler’s ghost,” observing that his impact on the 20th century was arguably greater than anyone else and he was certainly brilliantly skilled at those classic leadership arts of inspiring, mobilizing and directing followers. The people who ran Enron were heralded as leaders and agents of change until the company’s fall.
She also addresses the issue of followers, and their role in bad leadership: “Without followers nothing happens, including bad leadership. Leaders and followers share responsibility for leadership, bad as well as good.” In essence, bad leadership will continue unless followers take responsibility for rewarding the good leaders and penalizing the bad ones.
Those last ideas are further explored in The Allure Of Toxic Leaders, by Claremont Graduate University Professor Jean Lipman-Blumen. She begins with Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who said, “I am bewitched with the rogue’s company.”
And so are we. We may grouse about toxic leaders, but we often tolerate them, for long periods of time. Indeed, tolerate is an understatement. “Followers of toxic leaders often do much more than simply tolerate them. They commonly adulate, abet, and actually prefer toxic leaders to their non-toxic counterparts,” she writes. And the media, of course, goes even more gaga over them, in delight over their colourful personalities and dramatic action.
When we don’t have toxic leaders, she says, we go to great lengths to create them. She lists the following six psychological reasons:
- Our need for reassuring authority figures to fill the vacuum left by parental figures from our youth. Here we’re affected by our childhood experiences with authoritarian parents, who loved and protected us. We crave the same benefits from our leaders.
- Our need for security and certainty. Freedom can unsettle us in times of uncertainty and change, so we gravitate towards a leader who will make us feel safe, protected and good about ourselves.
- Our need to feel special or chosen. “Toxic leaders, who promise security and assure us that we are ‘special’ or ‘chosen,’ become particularly powerful magnets for our unmoored egos,” she notes.
- Our need for membership in the human community. Although we like to feel special, we also have a powerful need to belong.
- Our fear of ostracism and isolation. We don’t blow the whistle and dissent because we fear the consequences. “The sorry fate of many whistle blowers – loss of jobs, families, friends, professions, and sometimes their very sanity – offers little motivation for would-be resisters to follow suit,” she declares.
- Our sense of personal powerlessness to challenge a bad leader. We may feel confident about our professional abilities but doubt we can stand up to a toxic leader, who seems so powerful.
We have to overcome those psychological factors if we are to overcome toxic leaders. We must learn to be comfortable with the anxiety that surrounds organizational change and stop reaching out for an apparent saviour. We must abandon our role as passive, obedient followers who wait for the almighty leader to direct our action and i