Bosses From Hell: A Typology of Bad Leaders

Many leaders are ineffective and the worst are horribly destructive

Posted Apr 06, 2009

Although the vast majority of books on leadership focus on leaders' positive qualities and their effectiveness, it is clear that many leaders are ineffective and the very worst leaders are horribly destructive. Psychologists Robert and Joyce Hogan estimate that at least 50% of executives fail, and that 60-75% of U.S. managers are incompetent.

Let's look at the types of bad leaders, ranging from do-nothing bosses to the most virulent and evil (perhaps you have examples from your own experiences of one or more of these?):

Laissez-faire leaders. This classic type is leader in name only, sometimes called "abdicratic" because they abdicate their leadership responsibilities. I encountered a manager of a regional sales office, Dennis, who, although he looked the part, was a terrible leader because of his inability to make any sort of decisions for his team. Instead, his salespeople simply learned not to count on Dennis and to make their own plans and decisions. Ironically, Dennis's team was successful in spite of his ineffectiveness, and he was promoted (which led to his downfall as his laissez-faire nature became apparent to superiors in his next position).

Incompetent leaders. An enormously large category ranging from those who lack basic managerial and leadership skills, to inflexible leaders who use the same strategy regardless of the situation, to leaders who exhibit low levels of motivation or constantly make bad decisions. I worked for one leader whose low level of motivation was extraordinary. Although he relished his leadership role, he typically delegated most of his responsibilities to others, and provided little oversight.

Toxic leaders. Leadership scholar, Jean Lipman-Blumen, defines toxic leaders as those whose "destructive behaviors and dysfunctional personal characteristics generate serious and enduring poisonous effects...on those they lead." Toxic leaders work toward their own selfish ends and usually leave followers "worse off than they found us." She mentions Enron executives, Andrew Fastow and Jeffrey Skilling as examples of toxic business leaders, as well as leaders of cults, such as the People's Temple's Jim Jones.

Evil leaders, pure and simple. I would argue that Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and other despotic leaders are so morally corrupt and narcissistically self-centered that they make up a separate category of the very worst leaders - beyond merely bad or toxic.

It is important to note that not all bad leaders are ineffective. Hitler, for example, was extremely effective for many years in carrying out his twisted agenda. Saddam Hussein was able to control through abhorrent force the warring factions that have traditionally made up Iraq. It took a concerted effort from other nations to bring their leadership reigns to an end.

This leaves us with the most fundamental question for those of us who suffer bosses from hell: Why do we tolerate bad leaders? Lipman-Blumen and Harvard's Barbara Kellerman, author of "Bad Leadership," suggest that followers need to stand up to bad leaders and refuse to follow (although this is often easier said than done). An important key is to spot these bad leaders early on, remove them from their positions of power (if possible), or simply refuse to be led by them.

Kellerman, Barbara (2004). Bad Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Lipman-Blumen, Jean (2005). The Allure of Toxic Leaders. New York: Oxford University Press.

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