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How Bad Leaders Get Worse over Time


CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

When Volkswagen appointed a CEO in 2007, that leader came in with a firm reputation. Martin Winterkorn was known for unbridled ambition and ruling with an iron fist. VW set the goal of becoming the number one carmaker in the world. Winterkorn wanted the German car company to beat Toyota and General Motors in units sold, profits, and customer satisfaction within ten years.

At first, there were big successes. But in 2015, a scandal broke: Emissionsgate. Volkwagen had created a so-called defeat device. It let its cars meet pollution regulations only when they were tested, not when they were on the road.

Now those few lines of software were not Martin Winterkorn’s idea. But his leadership was widely criticized for making them possible. Looking back, you can point to a weak company board, compliant employees, and an enabling culture. So if the signs were there, why did no one act on them?

That’s something today’s guest has researched. She says if you want good company leaders, one of the worst things you can do is tolerate bad ones. Because that can easily spiral and make things much worse.

Barbara Kellerman is a fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, and she’s the author of the new book Leadership from Bad to Worse: What Happens When Bad Festers. Barbara, glad to have you on the show.

BARBARA KELLERMAN: My pleasure.

CURT NICKISCH: You write in the book, “Bad leadership is a social disease.” What makes you say that?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Well, I have been interested in the question of how bad – bad leadership, and I might add bad followership – have persisted. So we are very good at attacking, trying to cope with physical diseases. We pour hundreds of millions into all of these every year and we pour hundreds of millions into mental diseases.

But for some reason we put up with bad leaderships, which is sometimes to say the obvious, extremely bad to the point of being evil, as if somehow we are completely incapable of tackling it. I compare it to a disease because it’s something that has forever plagued the human condition. It startles me that we put up with bad leadership, whether it’s in the workplace or in the body politic or in the military or in education, you name the domain, without having the slightest conception, virtually the slightest conception of how to stop or at least slow it.

CURT NICKISCH: We should define bad because I think when we say bad bosses or bad leaders, we immediately think we know what we’re talking about. But of course that can encompass so many different failures. How do you define bad when you think about bad leadership?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: I just wrote an article for a leadership journal about what has stopped us from taking on bad. And certainly one of the reasons is not only because bad is hard to define, but because of differences in values and opinions. So your definition of a bad leader could be my definition of a good leader.

But my overarching way of trying to acquaint audiences and students with what I mean is to have two simple axis. One of them is an axis from effective to ineffective. So very simply, along that axis, a leader is a good leader if he or she is effective and a leader is a bad leader if he or she is ineffective.

The other all-important axis, is the axis that is the continuum from ethical to unethical. So a leader is good if he or she is ethical, not to speak of being both ethical and effective. And a leader is bad if he or she is unethical, not to speak of being simultaneously unethical and ineffective.

CURT NICKISCH: So a good leader is ethical and effective?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Exactly.

CURT NICKISCH: You have it in the title of your book that things go from bad to worse. You say that bad leadership can fester very easily if we don’t stop it and it doesn’t get better or rarely gets better. Its natural progression is to get worse. What did you see in your studies and research that tells you that?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: To me, it’s one of those things that’s so self-evident that it’s amazing we don’t act on it. But again, I think it’s a lot to do with… it’s not something we take seriously enough, as I said earlier. So I’m going to try to take a non-controversial example and simply point of Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin has been in charge of Russia in one or another guise for over 20 years and the Vladimir Putin that we see in 2022, 2023, 2024, and I mentioned 2022 because that’s when he made the decision to invade Ukraine, is quite different from the Vladimir Putin that first took office in around the year 2000. He is a perfect exemplar of a leader who has gone from not so great to somewhat bad, certainly by the standards of an American liberal Democrat, to increasingly worse.

And now as we speak in 2024, worse in every possible way. Again, speaking from the perspective of a liberal Democrat, if by worse you mean oppressive and repressive both at home and abroad.

Bad leaders do not typically wake up one morning and say, “Golly gee, I’ve been bad. I need to change my ways.” They will stop being bad only if someone else or something else stops them. And if nothing stops them and no one stops them, they will go from bad to worse. I do talk about four stages or phases in my book, and I might add that the more time goes by and the worse they get, the more difficult they become to uproot.

CURT NICKISCH: You mentioned before that we are not very good at stopping bad leaders.. Are we bad at identifying it? Do we have bias against change? Do we feel powerless? I’m wondering what the reason is for the bad followership that you also talk about.

BARBARA KELLERMAN: So to your questions, Curt, the answers are yes, yes and yes, but your last word is one that I do want to pick up on. Leadership, it’s not a person, it’s a system. It’s a little bit more complicated than focusing only on the leader. So the system, what I call the leadership system, consists of three parts of equal importance.

Part one is the leader. Part two are the followers. You cannot have a leader without at least one follower. Part three, the contexts, plural, within which leaders and followers are situated. And you cannot tackle bad leadership unless you educate followers to, number one, the possibility that they might be able to do something about a bad leader. And then number two, provide followers with some tools for how they might go about doing this.

I never want to downplay how hard it is to uproot a bad leader, whether it’s in the workplace, whether it’s in the body politic, whether it’s in the military, whether it’s in a school. Upending bad leaders is often hard work and it is sometimes even quite risky. So I don’t want to make it seem easy to upend a bad leader. It is much more difficult to uproot a bad leader the longer we wait.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, let’s talk about the phases of bad leadership. You can end up with a catastrophic situation with a terrible leader. But as you make the point, it’s a progression. What are some of the early signs of bad leadership and ineffective leadership that you think followers should pay more attention to? And in this case that might be employees in a company, right?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: So stage one is watching out for a leader who seems to promise the moon and the stars. Every leader, especially when they take over, whether it’s in politics or in business or in the military or in a higher education, wherever, they promise changes and they promise that the changes they make will make things better.

But if you have a leader who seems to promise things that are almost fantastical, wildly ambitious, exceedingly ambitious, almost narcissistically ambitious, as if that was previous was bad and everything under their reign will be good, then I would argue that’s the initial warning sign.

Pay attention. If a leader promises you, as I said, the moon and the stars, if the promises seem unrealistic, almost fantastical, then I would say be alert, pay attention. I’m all for a leader being optimistic and determined and wanting to get to a better place, no question about it, that optimism is really, really important. But if it seems somewhat unrealistic, somewhat detached from reality, then I would be slightly suspicious.

CURT NICKISCH: And it’s interesting, promising the moon and the stars could be any entrepreneur nowadays, and it probably was in Elizabeth Holmes’s case, right? What other signs should followers look out for?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Phase two is to acquire followers to expand and enlarge their base. But in this case, I’m talking about followers who seem to buy into that fantasy in an either excessively docile way or a way that at the other extreme is wildly enthusiastic and supportive.

In other words, the role of the follower, whether it’s, again, in the workplace or in a country or in any setting that we can possibly conceive of, is to be aware that leadership makes a difference and to be enlightened to the point of being willing to act if they see something or hear something that seems to them to be off base. So when you talk about the private sector, of Elon Musk’s board at Tesla, and you have the feeling that followers are so on board, so dedicated and devoted that they’ve reached the point of being largely, if not entirely uncritical, then you can assume that trouble might ensue.

So the nature of the followership, the size of the followership, if too many people are going along too uncritically, that’s phase two, then you could be running into trouble because there is no corrective that is being put in place. So phase one is promising the moon in the stars in ways that seem perhaps untethered to reality. And phase two, by promising such an abundance of good things, you acquire followers who are too often uncritical, unjudgmental, and conversely too enthusiastic about a leader who is promising things that cannot reasonably be attained without upending the system.

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s talk a little bit about exercising that control and recognizing that because it’s a judgment call, right? So do you have any recommendations for somebody who’s an employee at a company and they’re not sure if the leader is out of touch or just really ambitious and that could be a good thing?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Absolutely. I think maybe implicitly you’re talking about tech entrepreneurs who often are visionaries and are seeing futures that the rest of us absolutely cannot, and how do we distinguish between the fantasist and the person who really is just able to have some kind of a vision that will lead to some kind of splendid outcome.

I would simply point out, Curt, that many of the tech visionaries grounded their early language in a global morality that turned out in relatively short order to be completely untrue. So if you go back to the young Mark Zuckerberg or you go back to the young Steve Jobs, or you go back to the young Larry Page, or you go back to even younger than he is now, Sam Altman. In every one of these cases, it wasn’t just about the technology per se, it was about persuading us, the public at large, but also persuading employees who then in many, many, many cases, as I do not have to tell you, became later wildly disenchanted; It is not uncommon for the technologies to evolve in ways that seem not just not in line with the original moral vision, but indeed the antithesis of it.

CURT NICKISCH: So that’s one, you might want to pay extra attention to that. Most people maybe vote with their feet, they leave the company if they feel like it’s not going somewhere. What can you do in that situation as an employee to maybe better suss out whether or not you have a good leader at the helm taking you into the future or a bad leader at the helm taking you the wrong direction?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: You know, anytime you talk about leadership and followership, you’re certainly not talking in exact science here by any stretch of the imagination. But I do talk about certain things that you can do. You know, so much of this is about, and I’m going to use a phrase that became popular first in the sixties and probably much more in the seventies and into the early eighties in the women’s movement, which has to do with consciousness. The phrase is consciousness raising, which is just being aware. Most of us go to work and we don’t think a lot about the mission of the organization that we’re a part of, and we don’t think a lot about the moral quality of the leadership of the organization.

So I think much of it is simply what I’m trying to do is consciousness raising. Pay attention, watch for the signals. Do not assume that what happened in 2022 is going to be the same thing that’s happening in 2024 or 2026. So it’s a lot about paying attention. And then if you start to become persuaded that something may not be going as well as you think, speak up and speak out. Do not be afraid to speak truth to power. But be aware, as I earlier said, of the risks that are involved and do so intelligently, which generally means don’t go out on a limb alone, try to work with other people, see if you have allies in the organization who are willing to speak up.

But you and I both know that there are plenty of people in virtually every – and I’ll go back to the tech companies who started mainly because they’ve evolved so quickly, who have worked at places like Meta and Google Alphabet and who started off thinking they were on the side of the angels only to realize in a certain amount of time that theirs was a business like any other, theirs was a profit-making enterprise like any other. And that if harm had to be done in order to increase profits, by and large people were not giving it a second thought. Some of these moral issues are actually quite profound.

CURT NICKISCH: I wonder, I don’t know, if you are advising a student or if you’re advising somebody in your family who’s taking a new job. Are there questions you think they should ask during the interview process? Wuestions that you think they should ask their manager as they go along to try to raise their consciousness. They want to be aware, but what are some of your favorite ways to do that in a safe way as they’re getting rolling and building up their confidence with it?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: I think it’s a great question because most people who are in the position of applying for a job and then getting the job are often so happy to get the job that they don’t ask the larger questions about the organization that, apparently, because they’re applying for the job in the first place, they’re eager to join. But I think looking at past performance, not just in terms of efficacy and efficiency, but in terms of morality, I’m going to go back to the two axis of what is not only a good leader and a good follower, but also a good place to work.

One is, is the place of potential employee effectively doing what it says it is intent on doing what its purpose is? And the other is the ledger of morality. Do I feel that this is a place based on past performance precisely because we’re unable to predict the future – but based on past performance, do I feel this is a place to which I could be not just professionally committed, but personally committed in that I believe not only in the mission of the company, but I believe that the mission is being adhered to as opposed to neglected, that the words have some meaning behind them?

So I would say that perhaps the best thing you can do is to be alert to the kinds of issues that you and I have been talking about, but then also to look at past performance. So a combination of consciousness raising, being aware of the concerns that you might have about performance, whether it’s personal, professional, ethical, efficacy, being aware of it. Number one, being aware. Number two, looking at past performance as some kind of indicator of future performance.

CURT NICKISCH: And then that’s a baseline that you work from when you’re in that job and you see things change or you see things that come up?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Yeah, it depends. We all have many things that motivate us, Curt, as I don’t have to tell you, and I don’t underestimate the power of money, I don’t underestimate the power of safety and security. I have no doubt that many listeners are working in places that they wish could in some ways be different. And we all do our own personal and professional cost and benefit analyses to calculate when it’s worth saying something, when it’s worth protesting, when it’s worth even quitting.

CURT NICKISCH: Barbara, thanks so much for giving us some food for thought and some tools to make a difference when we choose to do so. I really appreciate you talking about this on the show.

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Thanks very much for the conversation. Appreciate it.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Barbara Kellerman, fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of the new book, Leadership From Bad to Worse: What Happens When Bad Festers.

And we have nearly 1000 more episodes plus more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Thanks to our team: Senior Producer Mary Dooe, Associate Producer Hannah Bates, Audio Product Manager Ian Fox, and Senior Production Specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thank you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We have a special series episode for you on Thursday, and we’ll be back with a regular episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.



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