Bad Leadership – A Disease Doomed Forever To Be Incurable?

I am always struck by the persistence and pestilence of bad leadership. It’s an endemic epidemic – a social disease for which we have no cure.

But some weeks seem worse than others, the last was one of them. Four examples – two of Callous Leadership and two of Evil Leadership.

In my book, Bad Leadership, I defined Callous Leadership as follows:

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.

Don Blankenship was, is, a callous leader. As a recent article in the New York Times documented, he ruled his business, Massey Energy, with an iron fist. (Link below.) He micromanaged to the point of demanding production updates from Massey Mines every 30 minutes. He fired those who worked for him without an apparent second thought. He was capable of behaving brutally to those beneath him, subordinates who ran afoul of exactly what he wanted. He was “quasi-dictatorial” in his overall management style. And, the evidence strongly suggests, he cut corners. He cut corners at the expense of the safety of those in his employ.

He will have his day in court – an opportunity to rebut the charge that in his efforts to minimize costs and maximize profits he bears responsibility for an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine that cost the lives of 29 men. Whatever the outcome of the legal proceedings there is this: the 2010 disaster was the deadliest in the coal mining industry in 40 years.

If Blankenship were alone or even in the small minority, no big deal. He would be an anomaly. The problem is that he is not. Callous leadership is endemic, and it is stressful, and it is bad for our health. A professor at Georgetown University, Christine Porath, reports that in 1998 a quarter of those she surveyed said they were treated rudely at work at least once a week. In 2005 this figure rose to nearly half; by 2011 it was over half. (Link below.) Bad behaviors by bosses include interrupting, being judgmental, failing to pass on important information, talking down to people, and neglecting the niceties. The point is this: bosses can be nice or at least reasonably civil at no great cost to themselves. Their frequent failure to do so is, however, costly to us, in the quality of our lives and our health. Being treated badly by bosses on a regular basis stresses our immune systems, and puts at risk our physical as well as psychological well-being.

In my book Bad Leadership I defined Evil Leadership as follows:

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 by physical, psychological, or both.

By almost any measure Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is an evil leader. In fact, the International Criminal Court has indicted Bashir on charges of genocide. Trouble is that he continues to elude capture, that his brutality goes on unabated, and that catching him and bringing him to justice appears low on everyone’s list of priorities, including the president of the United States. Just last week Bashir openly visited South Africa, and then flew back to Sudan before anyone could be bothered to hold him on the genocide charge. In other words, Americans along with everyone else lack the will to stop a leader who has been bad to the point of being evil.

Finally, there is this simple statistic. Nearly 60 million people – half of whom are children – have been driven from their homes by war and persecution. This figure, recently released by the United Nations, is unprecedented. It is that large. To what can we attribute these numbers if not to bad leadership – and bad followership? To leaders and followers – from Activists to Bystanders – who encourage this to happen, enable this to happen, allow this to happen?

Obviously it is an outrage. Less obviously it is a mystery. It is a mystery that over the millenniums we have managed effectively to eliminate a host of physical diseases. But we have not managed even to examine the worst of social diseases – bad leadership.





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