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A look at traits of bad leaders

Posted 4/30/2008   Updated 4/30/2008 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Maj. Jeffrey Ferguson
65th ABW Legal Office

4/30/2008 - LAJES FIELD, Azores -- President George Washington. President Abraham Lincoln. General William Tecumseh Sherman. General George S. Patton. All of these are people whose names immediately summon notions of the quintessential leader. 

For those of us who have experienced even the smallest dose of Developmental Education (aka PME), we know that our studies tend to focus on those character traits that make great leaders. We hear them time-and-time again: integrity; sacrifice, values, selflessness, etc. We try to incorporate the desirable character traits into the fiber of our being, both professionally and personally, in pursuit of being a better leader and someone our subordinates can look up to. 

But what about the character traits of bad leaders? There is another side to leadership that is rarely discussed and studied. Certainly we can all think of someone we would call a bad leader. Doesn't it make sense to study those characteristics that make bad leaders so we'll know what to be on the look out for in our leadership development? Doesn't it make sense to study the warning signs of undesirable character traits so that we don't undermine all of the hard work we've put into becoming better leaders? 

In her book Bad Leadership: What it Is, How it Happens, and Why it Matters, Barbara Kellerman examines seven character traits, or flaws some would call them, which consume a person and arguably make them a bad leader. She also provides historical examples of leaders who have succumbed to at least one, many of them multiple numbers, of these flaws. The seven flaws she identifies are: 

Incompetent The incompetent leader lacks the will or skill, or both, to sustain effective action. The reasons for incompetence are too numerous to list , but include a lack of education experience expertise, drive, energy ability to focus, flexibility, ability, stability and maturity, just to same a few. 

Rigid The rigid leader is stiff and unyielding, and is unwilling or unable to adapt to new ideas, new information or changing times. 

Intemperate The intemperate leader lacks self control. He or she is surrounded by people who are unwilling or unable to intervene. Typically, intemperate behavior plays out in private. When the behavior is exposed, it is often personally or professionally destructive 

Callous The callous leader is uncaring or unkind. The needs, wants, and wishes of the members of the group or organization are ignored or discounted by this type of leader.
Corrupt The corrupt leader lies, cheats, and steal, to such a degree they put self-interest ahead of public or group interest. Sadly, corruption is like a virus and no organization is immune. The path of corruption is easy to follow, and the benefits are great.
Insular The insular leader minimizes or disregards the health and welfare of those outside the group or organization for which they are responsible. If you think about it, this is human nature. One group competes against other groups for scarce resources. The insular puts the group's interests ahead of the common interest. 

Evil The evil leader commits atrocities and uses pain as an instrument of power. The harm done to members of the group is severe and can be physical, psychological or both. 

In her book, the author discusses easily recognizable examples of bad leaders such as Garry Hart and Marion Barry, Jr. (intemperate), Rudolph Giuliani (callous), Former President Bill Clinton (insular) and, of course, Saddam Hussein and Adolph Hitler (evil).
It's highly unlikely any of us will obtain the notoriety or impact on world history to the scale many of these leaders did. Nonetheless, it is easy to see how many of these character flaws can work their way into a person's leadership style unbeknownst to the leader until it is too late. 

Even in the mildest forms and at the lowest levels of leadership, any one of the above character flaws can appear in us or our organizations. The immediate supervisor who commits sexual harassment in the workplace or the flight commander who engages in fraternization with an enlisted flight member may be characterized as "intemperate." I'm sure we've all heard the phrase "That's they way we've always done it." This may well be an example of a leader who is "rigid." Not only can these character flaws surface at any level, they can have a devastating impact on an organization or to the mission. 

Many of you reading this article may be thinking to yourself, "Some of the examples of bad leaders above were extremely effective leaders or were successful in a particular setting or for a specific period of time. What gives?" You are absolutely correct. At some point, all of the bad leaders were able to motivate people, sometimes entire nations, yet they still failed at specific times or entirely as leaders. Why? 

There is no simple answer to this question, if an answer exists at all. As we are all aware, the life experiences that mold leaders, good and bad, are varied, complex and numerous. It is impossible to pick out one character trait that makes a person a great leader. Rather, I recommend you include the study of bad leadership in your professional development. Only by studying examples of bad leaders can we start to understand the character traits, recognize the warning signs before its too late, and become better leaders ourselves.

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