Wanted: more bad (as in good) leaders

Apr 30 2006 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Barbara Kellerman, an expert on bad leadership and bad hair (just look her up on Google) argues that there are zillions of ways a leader can be bad. See if you can spot your boss among them.

For starters there is plain good old fashioned incompetence - think John "Two Jags" Prescott, the UK Deputy Prime Minister currently mired in a sex scandal of whom it was once said "'every time he opens his mouth, it's like someone has flipped open his head and stuck in an egg whisk".

The there is the rigid reluctance to change, or intemperance, callousness, insularity and corruption - like the Hyundai chairman who has been arrested for creating slush funds worth $130 million with which he was busy bribing government officials.

It seems oh-so-obvious that we wouldn't want leaders like that…doesn't it?

And yet, there is room for board-level bad behaviour that is ultimately (well at least as far as we know) good. Steve Jobs, Apple's head honcho, throws near-daily tantrums and scares subordinates into avoiding him in stairwells and elevators, yet still inspires insane loyalty and out-of-this-world performance against (near) impossible deadlines.

But are his bad habits an unwanted, but necessary part of the package (like that polystyrene pasta stuff that spills out of plasma TV boxes) or just destructive eccentricity that has only been tolerated because of his wealth and position?

What about the laughably macho Jamie "the contender" Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, who is trying very hard to becomes the world's biggest banker (or something like that) with such stunts as appearing in Fortune magazine photo shoot as a boxer and dishing out tongue lashings colleagues and to congresswomen alike. Yet despite this, he is apparently, "the most watched, most discussed, most loved, and most feared" banker in the world. The bad boy done good.

Leaders need to offer two key functions: (1) They need to know where the hell we should all be going and (2) they need to understand their people well enough to make it worth their while (in whatever currency they want payment – cash, sense of family, security, fame, power, fun, pride – in reverse order of importance to most people).

To be dropped into a leadership position all you have to demonstrate is the ability to either manipulate a handful of interviewers
That's it. Delivering all that is all that leaders need to do and all they are good for. If they can't do both they are half a leader (a manager or a planner). If they can't do either, they are no leader at all.

Strangely to be dropped into a leadership position all you have to demonstrate is the ability to either manipulate a handful of interviewers (none of whom will be your followers) or, similarly, just be in the right place at the right time and be inoffensive enough to get the compromise vote. It's certainly a way of increasing the number of corrupt and incompetent leaders.

Given a choice real voters (nearly) always select whoever appears to offer inspiration or protection. Reagan inspiration. Bush protection. Mandella inspiration. Putin protection. Hitler inspiration. Churchill protection. This doesn't mean that the electorate is right but it does show key differences between what followers / voters / employees want from a leader and what committees tend to choose.

And since employees will choose whether or not to follow, obey, or actively engage it seems prudent to consider any new appointment from their point of view – some bad behaviour is inspirational because it delivers cash, sense of family, fame, security, power, fun, and pride in doing work that is cool, interesting, significant, or actually makes a difference.

People don't want to be bullied but the better people want to be pushed really, really hard to achieve something they can be proud of. They want to be appreciated but they don't want insincere gratitude from a superficial, suck-up boss who makes you want to vomit and fall to sleep at the same time. They want to be listened to but they don't want a wimpy leader with no passion, verve, or the desire and power to follow-through and get things done.

At the end of the day, what is the point of investing emotional capital in a psychological contract with a pseudo-parental figure if he or she isn't two steps ahead of you helping you to grow up? It's easy to hide corruption but it's really, really hard to fake the two core roles of a leader.

Employees want mesmerising eloquence, powerful risk-taking, sensational truth-telling, permission to improve, a bigger boss than the competition to hide behind when necessary (did I tell you about the two Australian construction company CEOs who settled a legal dispute with a best of three arm wrestle?) and a conduit for greatness.

So I, Max Mckeown, vote that we, wherever we have the influence, give the bad (as in good) leaders our support. Are you with me? Can employees be involved with the appointment of their own leaders? Shouldn't shareholders insist on anonymous employee leadership votes of confidence?

Maybe bad is needed to solve wicked problems? Can the promotion process worry more about the good stuff that followers care about as much as ticking public boxes of inoffensiveness?

It seem entirely possible to be good (all nice and smiley) but bad (useless); bad (manipulative and greedy) but good (motivational and visionary); or even bad/bad or rare-as-birds-teeth good/good.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.