How Can Bad Leadership Produce Good Results?

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A few months ago, I stopped freelancing and dove head first into a regular, full-time position with benefits. I was happy about the offer and looked forward to being part of a team, gaining additional HR experience, and earning a more steady income.

Now, as I leave the worst job I’ve ever had, reporting to (in my humble opinion) the most odious human being I’ve ever laid eyes on, I’m powerfully reminded once again about the importance of good and ethical leadership.

My friend (let’s call her Shirley) and I have been debating this issue for a while now.

The leadership debate

Shirley’s position: Yes, leadership is important, but the rank and file doesn’t need the permission of its “elected” leaders to do great things.

Hmmm …

My position: That’s true — to a point. Also true? Rotten leadership leads to rotten cultures, which leads to rotten work relationships, which leads to rotten organizations.

The masses can be motivated to do good all day long, but if those good actions aren’t supported by senior leadership, and — as is most often the case in these situations — bad actions ARE supported by senior leadership, then forget it. There’s a limit to the amount of good that can flourish under stinky management.

Rank imposes responsibility

The late Peter Drucker, a truly gifted management thinker credited with bringing much wisdom to the workplace, once said: “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.

Drucker’s statement goes right to the heart of the philosophy of servant leadership, and I’ll say it again — our workplaces need more of it. Show me a horrific leader and I’ll show you someone who’s infinitely more interested in his power than in the well-being of the employees under his charge.

But back to my friend Shirley.

She believes adults can do right without being told to do right. Shirley says, “We all have more influence than we know.” She also says, “We could make our leaders do anything if we used our power.”

History is her rationale. She points to phenomenal leaders through the ages, such as Martin Luther King and Jesus (hate him or love him, you can’t deny the guy’s influence), who weren’t democratically elected yet yielded great authority.

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What bad leadership can do

I say it’s just not that simple. Here’s my rationale:

  • Over time, doing good without any reinforcement, recognition, or reward becomes tedious and frustrating. I believe it’s why the Apostle Paul cautioned his followers to “not grow weary of doing good.” He knew how easy it is to lose the motivation to do right in trying times.
  • Most every workplace contains its fair share of liars, schemers, and aggressive personalities. Left to their own devices, and without accountability and control from ethical leadership, these individuals can and will destroy a culture, if not an entire organization.
  • We’re by and large groomed from birth to respect authority, meaning most of us are sheep, and our workplace behavior will reflect the values of our leaders. (Don’t kill the messenger, OK? Instead re-familiarize yourself with the findings of the Milgram obedience experiments. And yes, I know some people have issues with Milgram’s science and methods, but I’ve read what the detractors have to say and I still think the man was on to something.)
  • The worst kind of bad leadership, which is not merely inept but actively destructive, deliberately creates confusion and manages through fear. Work enough time in that environment, and you’ll be lucky if you’re still reasoning like a grown up. And make no mistake — bad thinking leads to bad acts.

Good leadership yields good fruits

But if all this is true, then the flip side is true as well — good and principled leadership can have an AMAZINGINGLY BENEFICIAL effect on an organization. Yippee!

And that’s why I don’t think my friend has any chance of winning this one. (Maybe next time, sweetie.)

Any way you slice it, people need leaders. Organizations need leaders. Whether the leader attains her power through position or charisma isn’t the point. Most people are followers and will follow the example of leaders, even bad leaders.

The point is (as another friend said when I asked her opinion), that without effective leadership, even if employees DO achieve fantastic things, these things might not align with the business needs, and then what?

The Buck stops with the boss

The point is, no matter how many informal leaders an organization has, the buck still stops with the “elected” leaders, and nothing short of the corporate equivalent of a civil war can alter that status quo.

And when’s the last time you heard about one of those?

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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