Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters

By Barbara Kellerman
Harvard Business School Press, 2004
282 pages, $26.95

The concept of leadership has come into its own over the past 25 years, and the term itself has become imbued with almost magical powers. Certainly in Western management thought, leadership is broadly regarded as a good thing. Indeed, some who write about leadership have refused even to acknowledge that malignant characters like Adolf Hitler who are powerful and effective in achieving malicious ends are leaders.

Bad Leadership is a timely reminder that leadership is not unilaterally good. The same dynamics between leaders and followers that can catalyze cooperation toward the common good can also result in evil outcomes.

Barbara Kellerman is research director of the Center for Public Leadership and a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In this book, she outlines a continuum of bad leadership ranging from the incompetent to the unethical, devoting a chapter to each of seven stages along this continuum. Her examples of bad leaders are drawn from a broad selection of business and political figures.

Writing about leadership often overemphasizes the role of leaders and underplays the importance of the roles of followers and the overall contexts in which leaders and followers interact. Dr. Kellerman avoids this trap by emphasizing that bad leaders are almost invariably accompanied and supported by bad followers — people who acquiesce in actions they know to be wrong because their own needs are being met. These followers can vary in the degree of their support for bad leadership, ranging from apathetic bystanders to acolytes and “evildoers.” Certainly context explains a lot about why this happens. In retrospect, it seems obvious that during the late 1990s economic boom, the “everybody else is doing it” excuse for accounting chicanery contributed to a rash of poor leadership decisions.

Tales from hell are usually more compelling to listen to than stories of heaven, and the accounts of bad leaders in this book are engaging. The question is: So what? How does one turn these accounts of bad leaders, bad followers, and the circumstances that created them into guidelines for action and change? Although Dr. Kellerman recognizes that there are no easy answers, her self-help advice directed at individual leaders and followers falls into the true-but-not-very-helpful category. That is, those who can benefit from it are unlikely to be bad leaders or followers in the first place. But if this book can function as an antidote to the golden aura with which leadership has become endowed, it will have served some purpose.

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