Bad leadership: an oxymoron | Sunday Observer

Bad leadership: an oxymoron

4 September, 2022

“We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.” – John F. Kennedy

Whether one focuses on success or failure of an organisation or a country, it is the leadership that is highlighted as one of the most influential factors responsible for the particular outcome.

There is no shortage of gurus and material advising and explaining what leadership means and how to become an effective and efficient leader. What is not seen or heard that often is in-depth analyses of ‘bad’ leadership.

Studying ‘bad’ or unsuccessful leadership is as important as studying ‘good’ or successful ones. While examples of success show what works, the examples of leaderships that did not deliver at least the minimum expectations will show what didn’t work allowing the observer to dig deeper into the root causes of less than satisfactory performance of the particular leadership.

Leadership has been studied through all different angles such as: how to define leadership, whether one is born or made as a leader, whether the leadership can be taught or learned and what characterises a successful leader.

Role of a leader

Such knowledge can help people as and when they have to play the role of a leader, at some point in their life, irrespective of whether it is in the form of a parent or a teacher guiding your children, a religious leader, a principal of a school, a vice chancellor of a university, a CEO of a company, a Mayor, a Governor, a Prime Minister, or even a President of a country.

Irrespective of the entity, whether an organisation or a country, it is hard to understand leadership without understanding the culture within which the leadership is recognised. It is easier to understand culture if one understands the leaderships through which that culture has been evolving. In general, ‘culture’ can be considered as a collection of shared behaviour patterns learned by a group as it faced internal and external constraints that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to teach new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to similar situations.

Unsuccessful leaders have proven to be the ones who have not had any intention of improving the organisation, be it a business or civil organisation or even a country, that they were supposed to lead, any more than what they absolutely must have had just to hang on to their position.

Some of the key characteristics of a true leader are identifying people with true leadership potential and training and grooming them to be able to shoulder the responsibilities of similar or even bigger positions.

These potential leaders may continue in the same organisation or even join the competition. Irrespective of the organisation they choose to lead, a true leader would always be a blessing and an inspiration to the whole world since the outcome of a true leadership is always a positive contribution towards the sustainable development of the planet.

It is not hard to find examples of imposters rising through the organisational ranks with a combination of manipulations and aggression. They usually understand the politics of getting ahead and let no one stand in their way. Such people are the ultimate political animals, who would start executing their game plan from the day-one.

Responsibilities of the position

They are highly capable of figuring out who their competitors within the organisation are and eliminating them one by one. Their journey to the top will be much easier if the organisation is being led by someone with similar characteristics seeking the support of such people in his/her inner circle.

Though such people get to leadership positions using all kinds of weaknesses of others and of the systems they are operating in, they lack confidence and competence to handle the responsibilities of the position.

They usually are paranoid that others are out to get them and therefore they tend to treat their subordinates as slaves. Intentionally or not, this process provides the breeding grounds for even worse imposters who would become leaders in a few more years.

Whether a political, business, civil or an educational organisation, once it is in this cycle, it is very hard to get out of it since it attracts more imposters over time.

There is another set of leaders who would blame the subordinates or other external forces including their predecessors, unless it is the direct influence of the predecessors that got them the particular leadership position. This type is more common in the political arena than in others. In the event that the new leadership was planted by the old then the main responsibility of the new leadership is to do everything possible to cover the tracks of wrongdoings and corruptions of the predecessor. Ultimately, such leaders and their organisations become victims of this game of passing the ball. If it is the leadership of a country that is playing this game, then the ultimate victims are the citizens of the country.

Some of these leaders only care about the fame and money they earn through the position and have no intention of serving the organisation. Some of these self-serving leaders move up the ladder so fast that everyone sees them as very efficient and competent leaders. They market them so well that other competing organisations would get into a bidding war to get him/her as their leader.

By the time their bad decisions start showing the devastating effects the first organisation has to face they have moved on with their game of checkers through several other organisations gathering a wealth to take care of several future generations of his/her descendants.

Another type of ‘bad leaders’ fall into the category of loners who avoid forming close relationships with anyone in the organisation. They usually do not seek out mentors or any support from advisory boards or peers. They not only will deny any wrongdoing, when things go bad, but also will blame the external factors.

Opportunities to learn

The strong connection between the culture and leadership is often overlooked and therefore what people believe to be leadership qualities do not produce true leaders.

Sri Lankans have had opportunities to learn this from political leadership since 1948 with life altering examples. Organisations as well as nations are cultural units with pockets of subcultures within them based on different factors such as: occupation, gender, race, religion, language and even age groups. As people started exploring new ways to improve their businesses to overcome the competition, they started looking at behavioral patterns of employees and managers which gave rise to ‘organizational’’ or ‘corporate’ culture.

Countries are sometimes identified by their political systems such as: democratic, socialist, monarchies and even anarchies. Different political groups or parties may have their own sub-cultures within the main cultural umbrella of the country. In the political arena people talk about ‘culture of equality’, ‘non-discriminatory culture’, ‘culture of law and order’ and very rarely even a ‘corruption-free culture’.

The personality and character of an individual can be viewed as an accumulation of the cultural learning through his/her family, the peer groups, the school, the community, the occupation, the workplace, and any other group he/she has been a part of. That perhaps is why Abraham Lincoln had once said: “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fifteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected])