Why Do We Follow Bad (Evil) Leaders?

By | November 26, 2019

[November 26, 2019]  Recently, I was asked to give my opinion why it is that people follow bad leaders.  The answer is, of course, complex and not always easy to explain; this is why we don’t see much written on the topic.  The problem we must struggle to overcome early in any discussion revolves around the definition of a “bad leader.”

What is a bad leader?  “Bad” is a broad idea and is used to mean many things.  I hope not to oversimplify but I will distinguish a bad leader (ineffective and unethical) from an evil leader (malevolent).  It is important, in my opinion, to differentiate between the two for our purposes here.  On the one hand, an inexperienced and clueless team leader may be described as a bad leader.  On the other hand, Joseph Stalin is an evil leader.1  The dissimilarity is fundamental.

We’ve all had a bad boss.  It would be unlikely anyone reading this has worked for an evil leader.  I certainly have had my share of working with bad leaders (usually my superiors) and on occasion I write about them.  Such a bad boss is likely to be rigid, insular, callous, corrupt, arrogant, unfair, unethical, ineffective, or incompetent or some combination of these.2  These traits should come as no surprise.

There are three main reasons we follow bad leaders:

  1. Psychological Reasons: We are social animals. Academics point to the fact that it is easy for us to fall into dominance hierarchies where we are prone to follow the leader with the highest push to protect us.  It could also be that we want to be socially validated.  Or, we could be seeking a way to divert attention away from our personal mediocre performance.
  2. Structural Reasons: We have no choice. Our place in the organization could have been determined by forces beyond our control.  Perhaps it was just plain bad luck or a premeditated plan that we were assigned to work with a bad leader.  For example, how we perform with a bad boss may be a test of our skills and consideration for another, better position elsewhere.
  3. Voluntary Reasons: Our task is to work with the bad leader. Who would, in their right mind, volunteer to fix a bad leader or work with them?  As part of an Army Engineer battalion staff, we discovered that one of the company commanders was under-performing and driving his soldiers too hard.  I went to our battalion commander to ask that the company commander be replaced.  It took nearly six months but new leaders were able to fix the damage done by a bad leader.

How to work with a bad leader and come out of it successfully is certainly no easy task.  It can be destructive at the personal and professional level.  If evil is involved, the destruction can be unpredictable.   Strength of character, experience, and focus is required.  One of my most difficult assignments in the U.S. Army was working with a narcissistic commander.  That narcissistic commander was not being replaced, so I was required to work with him and had a difficult time.

It can be an admirable goal to work with bad leaders and survive while, at the same time, ensuring that organization/group continues to achieve its mission.  My advice is to be honest and courageous; that is the only path to survival with a bad leader.

————

  1. Thus, an evil leader may be either good or bad at what they do but he would still be evil. To see some characteristics of Joseph Stalin, read my article profiling him here: https://www.theleadermaker.com/profile-joseph-stalin/
  2. For a professional-level analysis, see Jean Lipman-Blumen in her book The Allure of Toxic Leaders – Lipman-Blumen, Jean. The allure of toxic leaers: Why we follw destructive bosses and corrupt politicians—and how we can survive them. Oxford University Press, September 2004.
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Why Do We Follow Bad (Evil) Leaders?

  1. Ed Berkmeister

    I never thought of it this way. All other articles seem to concentrate on “psychological” reasonings and ignore the structural components. Thanks, Gen. Satterfield. Excellent topic for us to think about.

    Reply
  2. Max Foster

    The importance of this topic is crucial to our being better leaders. Let’s not overlook that fact and use it as a starting point. Humans have motivations that are not the same. And, by the way, diversity is not the cure all that it is jazzed up to be. Sometimes consensus is a good thing. Weakness nonetheless is always a bad thing if we plan on getting anything accomplished. Oh, by the way, before I forget, Happy Thanksgiving to all.

    Reply
    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Max, I do believe you are right. I appreciate Gen. Satterfield addressing this very complex and difficult to understand idea and trying to do it in a short article. Obviously, as we look back on history, philosophers and others have tried to answer the question and will continue to do so ’til the end of time.

      Reply
    2. Dennis Mathes

      Thanks Max. Spot-on comment. Thanks. Gen. Satterfield has started the conversation for us, let’s not let is go unanswered.

      Reply
  3. Bart Rhodes

    Makes me wonder why anyone would follow someone like Joe Biden, Eliz Warren, or Bernie Sanders. They are divisive, liars, and want to destroy those who work for a living. I’m wondering if they are just plain evil or extremely bad leaders. One thing I will say is they have a big following.

    Reply
    1. Karl J.

      Let’s be clear, just because someone is evil doesn’t mean they are ineffective leaders.

      Reply
    2. Jonathan B.

      I normally avoid writing or speaking about politics. The divisiveness and the intolerance of others has been increasing lately. With the news media strong biases and the corruption of the common man, I’m prone to let this stuff go over my head for now. My goal is to make myself a better human and a better leader-follower.

      Reply
    1. Kenny Foster

      I agree. Here is an interesting one from the article. 3. We Crave Power.

      Reply
  4. Valkerie

    I found ‘voluntary reasons’ to be the most interesting of all. Why would someone want to work with a bad leader. If we are looking at evil leaders, then I can understand. This is where, I believe, General Satterfield could add some significant logic to the debate. Thanks for another educational blog post.

    Reply
    1. Greg Heyman

      Yes, I agree. Weird that folks would want to be part of an evil system. Makes you wonder why anyone would wanted to be part of Nazi Germany of Imperial Japan. Yet, I think we know the answer and would not be surprised if we, ourselves, were sucked into these ideologies. Just like folks who love the Soviet Union and China despite those two being responsible for over 100 million deaths.

      Reply
  5. Linux Man

    Another great article that tackles a difficult problem. The issue of why humans behave in a certain way is something that has been studied as long as we have walked the planet and will continue to be. I personally like the “we are social animals” explanation.

    Reply
  6. Wilson Cox

    Very good article this morning, Gen. Satterfield. I would like to see, however, a better developed distinction between ‘bad’ and ‘evil’ leadership. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. JT Patterson

      Yes, I thought originally that is the way the article was headed. However, I’m not so sure the reasons we follow either would be much different categorically and generally. The results, nonetheless, would be radically different.

      Reply
      1. Yusaf from Texas

        I was about the write the same thing. A better distinction between the two would be very very helpful.

        Reply
    2. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      Yes, as a student of why do the things they do, I would also like to see more on it. Why people do things that logic would suggest otherwise, is an interesting and USEFUL topic.

      Reply
      1. KenFBrown

        Bill, I’m with you on this one. The more we know the better we can deal with evil. The more we can work to fix bad leaders. The more we can be better people to ourselves, our families, our communities and nation.

        Reply

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