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Leadership and followership
Leadership and followership

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2 Defining poor or weak leadership

Now that you’ve considered your own experience of poor leadership, in this section you’ll look at definitions that researchers and business experts have developed.

Lego mini figures of Darth Vader and a Stormtrooper facing each other against a red background.
Figure 2 Bad leaders can be found in both real life and fiction.

There is a growing academic interest in the negative side of leadership, and Schyns and Schilling (2013) outline two main reasons for that:

  • prevalence of destructive leader behaviours in organisations, and the associated costs
  • findings that the effects of destructive leaders on their followers are severe.

Researchers have defined several types of negative leadership, often using different terminology. Three key categories are outlined here.

Ineffective leadership

Barbara Kellerman (2004) defines seven types of bad leadership and uses numerous high-profile case studies in her book Bad Leadership: What it is, How it Happens, Why it Matters. She first divides bad leadership into two broad categories:

  1. Ineffective leadership ‘fails to produce the desired change. For reasons that include missing traits, weak skills, strategies badly conceived, and tactics badly employed, ineffective leadership falls short of its intention’.
  2. Unethical leadership ‘fails to distinguish between right and wrong’.

For the purposes of this course, you’ll concentrate on the first category, ineffective leadership, which Kellerman (2004) divides into three groups, illustrating each with a range of case studies:

  1. Incompetent – lacks the will or skill (or both) to sustain effective action; does not create positive change. Case study: Juan Antonio Samaranch (business leader)
  2. Rigid – stiff and unyielding, unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas, new information, or changing times. Case study: Mary Meeker (business leader)
  3. Intemperate – lacks self-control and is aided and abetted by followers who are unwilling or unable to intervene. Case study: Marion Barry Jr (political leader)

Destructive leadership

Other authors have focused on the concept of destructive leadership.

Following a comprehensive review of the literature, Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser (2007) set out five features of destructive leadership:

  1. Destructive leadership is seldom absolutely or entirely destructive: there are both good and bad results in most leadership situations.
  2. The process of destructive leadership involves dominance, coercion and manipulation rather than influence, persuasion and commitment.
  3. The process of destructive leadership has a selfish orientation; it is focused more on the leader’s needs than the needs of the larger social group.
  4. The effects of destructive leadership are outcomes that compromise the quality of life for constituents and detract from the organisation’s main purposes.
  5. Destructive organisational outcomes are not exclusively the result of destructive leaders, but are also the products of susceptible followers and conducive environments.

Both Kellerman and Padilla et al. include followers in their definitions, making the point that bad or destructive leaders can’t have the same impact without either bystanders who look the other way, or colluders who join in the destruction. You’ll investigate followers and followership in more detail in Week 5.

Narcissistic leadership

Maccoby (2004) investigates narcissistic leadership, highlighting the following characteristics:

  • Strengths – great vision; scores of followers
  • Weaknesses – sensitive to criticism; poor listeners; lack of empathy; distaste for mentoring; an intense desire to compete.

His article includes numerous examples of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) who fall into this category and he makes the point that a challenging external context has caused us to rely on these leaders due to their big personalities and engaging oratory.

Have you ever encountered a leader who falls into one of these categories? Can you recognise any of those characteristics in yourself?

Activity 2 Categorising poor leadership

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Refer to the example of poor leadership you thought of in Activity 1. Looking at the various types and definitions listed in this section, can you fit that leader into any of those categories? Summarise your thoughts here:

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Did your example fit into Kellerman’s ineffective leadership category i.e. ‘incompetent’, ‘rigid’ or ‘intemperate’? Or was your leader demonstrating narcissistic tendencies? A key question to ask yourself is ‘What can I learn from that person’s approach to ensure it isn’t a path I might take during my own leadership career?’

If you can’t recognise your leader as ineffective, destructive or narcissistic, it may be that they are just making common leadership mistakes. You’ll look at some of those in more detail in Section 4.

Now that you’re familiar with some of the ways in which leadership can be poor or weak, the next step is to consider the impact of that poor leadership on individuals, teams and businesses.