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Learning to Lead From Examples of Poor Leadership

An example of bad leadership in business

Here’s a sobering thought: if you go to the books section of Amazon and type “leadership” into the search bar, over 183,000 results will be returned. If you jump over to Google and type “leaders who are jerks,” links to 147,000 articles, rants, and blogs will appear. And if you change your search term to “bad leaders” you will get around 247,000 links to choose from. Leadership, it seems, is something that stirs emotion — and nothing stirs it more than bad leadership.

That emotion, that sort of passion, often arises around things that are not easily quantifiable, things that do not adhere clearly to the “if, then, else” rules of logic. It’s the reason that at family holiday dinners, you are more likely to argue about politics and religion than you are about the validity of the Pythagorean theorem. Ambiguity brings debate, especially when it’s easy to have an opinion to share. And in the realm of leadership, we all have opinions.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a science to the study and implementation of leadership practices. After all, I work at the Harvard Business School (HBS) where much of what we do is teach students about leadership — what it is, how to practice it, and how not to (our mission, in fact, is to “educate leaders that make a difference in the world”).

As the leader of HBS’s digital learning initiative, called HBX, I believe very much in using technology to expand the reach of the school and thus educate more people in leadership and business disciplines in a formal way. But even in the face of fascinating research and world-class teaching, there’s still not a formula to give students that allows us to say to them: “Do these three things and you will be a successful leader.”

(This is a good place to mention that despite the fact that no such formula exists, that doesn’t mean there aren’t efforts to provide one. Among those returns from the Amazon book search mentioned earlier are: “Quiet Leadership, Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work;” “The Leadership Handbook: 26 Critical Lessons Every Leader Needs;” “Rare Leadership: 4 Uncommon Habits for Increasing Trust, Joy, and Engagement in the People You Lead;” and “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.” I suspect I could sell a lot of books if I was able to boil leadership down to just one law, habit or step!).

So while formal education can help increase the likelihood that an individual will be a successful leader, I think it’s fair to say that until you are out of the classroom and into the field where you can learn by doing, it’s hard to hone your skills. And while much is to be learned from those mentors that show us the right way to do things, I think that even more can be gained from experiences with leaders who were, shall we say, less than effective. With that in mind, here are the four most important lessons I’ve learned about what not to do from my own encounters with leadership gone wrong.

Don’t wear your rank on your sleeve:

Good leaders don’t have to remind everybody that they are the leader, they just lead. I once had to work with a senior official while serving in the military who wanted to interject himself into events just to demonstrate that he was in charge. During a dress rehearsal for the launch of a military satellite, I was in command of a team that was responsible for successfully getting the hardware into orbit. When a simulated problem was thrown at us, I followed the checklist to make sure that we remained disciplined and focused while remedying the issue.

The military lives by checklists and to great effect. So interrupting the flow of such a process is a big no-no. But as soon as the problem was introduced, I heard this official (who outranked me significantly but who did not have decision rights in the environment we were operating in) jump in and try to demonstrate his intellect and position of power for all to see. It impeded our ability to work through the problem more quickly and ultimately left a taste of distrust in those of us who had to work for him. We knew he was the highest-ranking person in the room — reminding us both directly and indirectly smacked of an insecurity that made everybody question his fitness to lead.

Later, another of my superiors, while debriefing me on my performance during the simulated problem, used the incident as a teaching moment. He said to me: “Remember this. Everybody knows your rank. You don’t have to remind them. Doing so looks defensive and small-minded. Just lead.”

Don’t be “tough” to demonstrate toughness:

During my time with a relatively large conglomerate, all business unit leads were called back to the home office once a quarter to brief the C-level suite regarding the performance of their P&Ls. One of those briefed during this two-day event was a man who took pleasure in demonstrating his toughness by berating presenters in front of all those assembled (managers watched each other’s presentations so the audience numbered around one hundred).

The man name-called and insulted with such profanity I can’t even put a first and last letter of any of the words with asterisks in between on this page — even clues to what he said would be offensive to most! He seemed to think that behaving in this way was how he demonstrated his own toughness and kept mid level managers’ collective feet to the fire. But this almost never works, certainly not over the long term. Those who were supposed to respect him mocked him behind the scenes; more time was spent trying to understand how to avoid the onslaught each quarter than to present meaningful, actionable information.

Yes, there are times to get tough as a leader – but toughness manifests itself not in public humiliation but private, thoughtful feedback; not in shouted obscenities but in mostly measured tones.

What should “toughness” look like then? Good question, perhaps answered best with another story. Upon leaving one of my jobs, I attended a going-away party thrown by the team that I managed. After a few adult beverages, they started talking freely to me about what it was like to work for me. During that walk down memory lane, one of my employees said that I could be tough. That surprised me. I noted to them that I had never raised my voice or criticized one of them in front of others. I didn’t set unreasonable goals and then beat up people when they didn’t meet them.

The woman who made the comment clarified by saying that it wasn’t that I was a yeller or insulter but that I set the bar high and that they were always concerned they would disappoint me if they didn’t excel. Others in the group agreed. In thinking about that comment in the years since, I’m not sure that’s a bad place to be as a leader. If your team wants to perform because they respect you enough not to let you down, then you will likely have a high-performing team (and they were!). If that’s how we define “tough,” then I’m happy to have that moniker.

Don’t create problems and then admonish employees for not fixing them:

I was once in charge of the operations of a manufacturing company and reported directly to the CEO. The company had equipment and skilled employees that not only could make the complex widgets we sold to our Fortune 100 customer base, but could also be used (I later learned) to make things for the CEO in support of his personal hobby. And use them he did; he was regularly commandeering resources to do his bidding. While this in itself presents some ethical problems with respect to the use of investor-funded assets (he was a minority owner of the company) for personal purposes, the more immediate problem for me was that it took valuable resources away from our operations that were needed to meet customer demands.

Worst of all, the CEO didn’t see the irony of taking resources away from the company and then beating up the team over our inability to meet a monthly shipments forecast. Hitting the number is a lot more difficult when the most skilled workers on the plant floor are taking orders from the CEO to make non-revenue producing product! This behavior created resentment throughout the organization. When bonuses were lower one year due to lackluster performance, employees couldn’t help but ask how much money had been wasted on the boss’ personal activities.

Ultimately, it also gave employees an excuse for why they weren’t hitting numbers — even if it may not have been the reason. In Texas, where I grew up, we have a saying: “Don’t spit on my head and tell me it’s raining.” Be sure you’re not the one doing the spitting and then yelling at your employees because of the bad weather. (I did end up talking to the CEO’s business partner, the president of the company, about the CEO’s behavior. He eventually stopped using company resources for personal purposes.)

Don’t be Marcus Junius Brutus:

This one is not only about being a good leader but about being a good follower, too. Who is Marcus, you may ask? If you shorten his name to just the last word, you’ve probably figured it out: Brutus. The man who conspired to murder his mentor and brother in arms, Caesar. The man referenced in the famous line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.”

Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar 1802
Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar (1802)

I had a Brutus work for me once. He was a very senior leader in the company himself, with a team that numbered over one hundred employees reporting through him. When I hired him, he exhibited a quick mind and decisiveness that I thought would be valuable. But I missed something … big time. Before getting to that, let me mention a leadership trait I learned from others and that has served me well and that is relevant to the rest of my Brutus tale. And that is this: encourage your staff to disagree with you, to challenge you regularly. Raise voices if you have to (respectfully, of course, and always out of view of direct reports). But also commit to each other that when the person in charge makes a decision, all will leave the room aligned and communicating the same message to the teams they manage. This is especially important for those whose position didn’t win the day in the debate. Being a traitor to this principle can be poisonous.

Now, back to my Brutus story. The man I mentioned sat in senior staff meetings where we had such debates and made decisions. Often we all agreed. But sometimes we didn’t. And when we didn’t, Brutus — outside of our senior staff discussions — did not hide the fact that he would have gone a different direction. In fact, I would learn later, he would tell his staff during his team meetings, “We’re going to do X because Patrick wants to, but I don’t think it is what we should do.” Needless to say, this undermining was detrimental in so many ways. It sowed confusion in the ranks about what the strategy was and led people to wonder who was actually steering the ship.

As a leader and follower, it’s so important that alignment be strong, consistent, and visible. Being a corporate Brutus is the fast track, at best, to poor execution as employees flounder and, at worst, the unemployment line for the manager that couldn’t put his or her own feelings aside and show unity in purpose when a decision didn’t go his or her way (my Brutus ended up in the unemployment line).

I’ve found that even if a decision in retrospect wasn’t the right call, that having unity among the senior staff in executing on that decision increases significantly the chances that things will turn out well. So debate and argue. But be sure that everybody adopts a decision as if it was his/her own and demonstrates support in all they do.

One last thought: If you choose a path your staff did not support and they turn out to be right, be sure to let them know you were wrong. Doing this ensures that fruitful debate continues and starts a virtuous cycle that can lead to the best decisions with the most beneficial alignment.


I have made many mistakes as a leader. I know I’ll make many more. But in trying to avoid wearing rank on my sleeve, being “tough” to demonstrate toughness, creating problems that I blame others for, and being a “Brutus,” I hope that I’ve at least removed the potential to make really big mistakes. John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” I agree. And learning from bad leadership is perhaps the most important learning of all.



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