Leadership is a dynamic process that involves leaders, followers, and context.  Generally, when we talk about leadership, we default to inspiring, uplifting, positive, moral, and ethical approaches to leadership.  We hold up as examples good leaders who were part of a dynamic process that generated positive results.  We assume that leadership and all of its complexity is automatically good.  But that is not the only reality.

Sometimes the interaction between the three factors of the leadership produces a negative outcome.  What happens when leaders are incredibly effective at using their power and authority to influence followers, and the outcomes are less than desirable? What if the results are negative, hurtful, appalling, or catastrophic?  Objectively, this is still leadership, albeit bad leadership.  But leadership nonetheless.  We need to take off our rose-colored glasses and acknowledge this negative reality.

The positive orientation toward leadership, this exclusive focus on good leadership, is a recent phenomenon in the United States born out of the leadership cottage industry.  It is setting us up for failure because we won’t be prepared when bad leadership strikes, and we won’t be aware of our role in enabling it.

Barbara Kellerman wrote “Bad Leadership” in 2004, a book that presents a typology of bad leadership.  She identifies two broad categories of bad leadership, ineffective and unethical.  Ineffective leadership includes incompetence, rigidity, and intemperance, and unethical leadership includes callousness, corruption, insularity, and evil.

Reading about bad leadership surely won’t make you feel inspired or happy like the typical stuff being pushed out by the leadership industry.  But it will prove useful.  Understanding the different types of bad leadership, raising our awareness of the fact that ineffective and unethical leadership are a reality, will help us proactively recognize and prevent bad leadership.

I share with you the seven types of bad leadership identified by Barbara Kellerman in hopes of raising our collective awareness.  I also offer ‘Proactive actions?’ with each type of bad leadership in hopes of stimulating action-oriented dialogue on ways to stave off bad leadership.

Incompetent Leadership (ineffective): leaders and followers don’t have the knowledge, skill, abilities, and behaviors required to deliver positive change.  Proactive actions?  Organizations need to get the right people in the right place, doing the right things for the right results.  Talent acquisition and performance management processes are key.

Rigid Leadership (ineffective):leaders and followers are incapable of adapting and being flexible.  Proactive actions?  Organizations need to build intentional self-reflection and self-awareness into learning and development programs, and quarterly strategy sessions should challenge assumptions.

Intemperate Leadership (ineffective):leaders are impulsive, and followers don’t intervene. Proactive actions?  Leaders need honest coaching and constructive feedback, and followers need assertiveness training.

Callous Leadership (unethical): leaders and followers are heartless and ruthless. Proactive actions?   Organizations need to develop performance management programs that embed core values into the organizational culture, and that focus efforts on getting the right results, the right way.

Corrupt Leadership (unethical):leaders and followers engage in various forms of malfeasance.  Proactive actions?   Checks and balances must remain a priority, and open and transparent communication must be modeled, encouraged, and reinforced.

Insular Leadership (unethical):leaders and followers disregard the well-being of outsiders.  Proactive actions?  Boundary spanning activities, systems thinking, cultural self-awareness, and diversity must be central to strategy sessions and learning and development programs.

Evil Leadership (unethical):leaders and followers “commit atrocities”, both physical and psychological.  Proactive actions?  Everyone must embrace a collective responsibility and duty to serve as courageous followers who speak truth to power, and organizations must support these followers.

(Originally published by the Reading Eagle Business Weekly on 9-10-19)