[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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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/
- 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.