Bad Leadership

In 2004 I wrote a book titled as above – Bad Leadership. I wrote it because I could not understand why the leadership industry was so obsessed with developing good leaders, when stopping or at least slowing bad leaders seemed every bit as daunting a problem. “Why,” I asked, “do we tend toward utopianism on matters relating to the importance of power and authority in human affairs? How did the word ‘leadership’ come to be synonymous with good leadership? Why are we afraid to acknowledge, much less admit to, the dark side.”? These are questions I posed then – these are questions I pose now.

Bad leadership and bad followership – they are indivisible – are endemic to the human condition. Moreover there is not the slightest sign – not withstanding the still burgeoning leadership industry – this is about the change.

Withal, there are some moments in time when bad leadership seems particularly prevalent, when it seems to smack us in the face, over and over again. These last several days have been such a moment. In the last week has been a spate of stories that remind us how bad leadership – whether bad as in “unethical” or bad as in “incompetent” – remains a hill we have not yet even begun to climb.

Arguably, for Americans anyway, the worst of these has been the so-called “Petraeus Affair.” Not because we are, or should be, stunned that a heretofore iconic general in the U. S. Army had a relationship with a woman other than his wife, or even that he might have done so while serving as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Rather it is that he, and his successor, Marine General John Allen, who has been at least slightly tarnished by the same brush, have in a single stroke blemished the reputation of the American military.

Why does this matter so much? Why would I argue that this is yet another sign of “the end of leadership”? It is because up to now the military has been one of the few, arguably the only, institution in America whose reputation remained into the 21st century relatively clean and pure. It might not seem fair to blight an entire organization because a couple of leaders were pushed from their perch. But these were no ordinary leaders – they were among the highest ranking in the American military. And so it came to pass, as the cover of Time made clear, that this became a story not only about David Petraeus, but about how his “Fall Exposed a System Failure at the Highest Levels of National Security.” (11/26.)

In fact, even the conduct of our two most recent wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, is now being scrutinized in new and different ways. Would the New York Times have published this Op Ed piece by Thomas Ricks even a couple of weeks ago? It’s titled “Questioning the Brass” and makes the following claim: “Our generals actually bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars. They especially failed to understand the conflicts they were fighting – and then failed to adjust their strategies to the situations they faced so that they might fight more effectively.” (11/12.) And would the Times have followed up Ricks’s piece with yet another one, just a few days later, this one by Lucian Truscott IV, that so directly attacks the only recently revered Petraeus? “The thing he learned to do better than anything else was present the image of The Man You Turn To When Things Get Tough…. He was so good at it that he conned the news media into thinking he was the most remarkable general officer in the last 40 years, and, by playing hard to get, he conned the political establishment into thinking that he could morph into Ike Part Deux …. The problem was that he hadn’t led his own Army to win anything even approximating a victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan”[

But of course my own overarching point is not about Petraeus or the military per se. It is about how bad leadership is ubiquitous – and about how our senses are serially saturated with stories of how those on high fall down on the job.

• Martha Stewart described as a “brand icon in need of some oversight.” (NYT, 11/9/12.) Turns out that she continues to collect “lavish multimillion-dollar compensation and perks,” while her company “teeters under the weight of huge losses.” James Stewart paints a picture of woman whose greed now overwhelms her ability to lead.
• Former Governor of the State of New Jersey, and former CEO of MF Global, Jon Corzine, blamed by a congressional committee for his abject failure to prevent the collapse of his company. He was charged with having created an “authoritarian” atmosphere, which inevitably exposed the company to risks it was “ill-equipped” to handle. Concluded the committee: “Choices made by Jon Corzine during his tenure as chairman and CEO sealed MF Global’s fate.”
• British Petroleum agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines and other penalties, and to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges related to the deadly rig explosion two years ago in the Gulf of Mexico. More to the point, remarkably, atypically, a few individuals were actually held personally responsible for what went wrong. Three men, all on BP’s payroll and all closely associated with the disaster, were indicted on manslaughter charges relating to the deaths of 11 fellow workers. Key here is the distinction between an abstraction, holding an institution accountable, and a reality, holding an individual accountable.
• Clever leaders ensnared in traps of their own making – for example, Steven Sinofsky, second in command at Microsoft, out from one day to the next, reputedly because he was appallingly abrasive; and John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, embarrassed because his wife Mary was suspected of abusing the use of Coke’s corporate jets.
• King Abdullah II of Jordan faced with violent protests in response to his government’s announcement that fuel prices would be raised. While Abdullah’s monarchy does not appear in immediate jeopardy, this was nonetheless an unparalleled show of anger directed at him and his kingdom. For the first time, protesters called for an end to his rule.
• Wal-Mart uncovered evidence that violations of a federal anti-bribery statute extended beyond Mexico, the original target of its internal investigation. As a result, said investigation has been extended to China, India, and Brazil.
• Ikea, the Swedish company known worldwide for its cheap but somewhat stylish furniture, was forced publicly to admit that in the 1980s it had knowingly used political prisoners in the former East Germany to keep its labor costs low. Accusations against the company started to appear in German and Swedish media about a year ago. Now that they have been confirmed, victims will be redoubling their efforts to be compensated.
• Lockheed’s incoming CEO, Christopher Kubasik, was ousted even before he could take over. Why? Because he violated Lockheed’s code of ethics by engaging in a “lengthy, close personal relationship” with a subordinate. Sound familiar? So does this. Mr. Kubasik said in a statement, “I regret that my conduct in this matter did not meet the standards to which I have always held myself.”
• George Entwistle, former director general of the BBC, left his job in the wake of a decades-old sexual abuse scandal, and several other executives were obliged to step aside as well. So far Mark Thompson, another former director general, whose hands are other than completely clean in this matter, remains in line imminently to take over as CEO of the New York Times Company.
• Labor talks collapsed – and Hostess Brands bit the dust. The 85 year-old company, which gave us national treasures including Twinkies and Ding Dongs and Wonder Bread, had declared bankruptcy in January, and this week it folded. More specifically, the breaking point was irreconcilable conflict between leaders of Hostess and leaders of the baker’s union. Because they could not be resolved the company went out of business – which means the large majority of its 18,500 employees will be laid off.
• There was renewed military strife in Gaza, between Israel and Hamas. On this particular subject, no more need be said, at least not here, not now.

One last thing – a final question. Can you tell me why this dreadful, sometimes even lethal, phenomenon, bad leadership, remains outside the purview of the leadership industry, outside the purview of leadership scholarship?

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