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5 Reasons We Follow Bad Leaders

Is it them or us that’s the problem?

Why are there so many bad leaders in the world? Psychologist Robert Hogan estimates that the majority of workplace managers/leaders are either deficient or incompetent – one reason why executive turnover is so high. And, with a world full of dictators and despots, political leadership is also full of bad leaders. What’s going on?

A big part of the problem is that we really don’t know how to pick good leaders, due to psychological biases and trying to serve our own self-interests, rather than the greater good. Here are some of the reasons that we choose and follow bad leaders:

1. We Value the Wrong Leader Qualities. We value strong, confident leaders, but often confuse arrogance and narcissism for strength. Research shows that the worst leaders are very narcissistic and arrogant. Bad leaders are convinced that they are right, rarely take counsel, and don’t learn from their mistakes. The very best leaders possess humility and know that they: a) aren’t always right (and they need others’ input); and, b) can continuosly learn and improve as leaders.

2. We Equate Effectiveness with Being a Good Leader. We place great value on results, but often neglect to consider how those results were obtained (i.e., “the ends justify the means”). Truly good leaders are successful, but they are careful to do the (morally) right things. Good leaders minimize harm and strive to represent all of their constituents, not just those who they favor.

3. We Crave Power. Leadership expert, Jean Lipman-Blumen, in her book on Toxic Leadership, suggests that followers enable and assist bad leaders – allowing them to get into positions of power, and supporting their misdeeds. All too often, folllowers look to and support the leaders who will give them what they want, rather than what the country or organization needs. Bad followers (“henchmen”) are drawn to bad leaders because of the promise of sharing the power.

4. We Don’t Hold Leaders Accountable. We often blindly place leaders on a pedestal and assume that they will do the right thing. We need to be active followers and hold leaders accountable. The title of Ira Chaleff’s book, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, says it all. We need to stand up to our leaders when they are on the wrong path, and support them when they are doing the right thing. The fact that the U.S. Congress passively acquiesced to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, suggests that they weren’t doing their job of fully questioning the President’s course of action.

5. We Rationalize. All too often we give leaders “a pass” instead of holding them accountable. Or, we allow leaders to be above the rules (“he/she can do it BECAUSE he/she is the leader”). Finally, we “settle” too easily. Instead of seeking out the very best leader, we “make due” with the poor leader candidates that we have.

So how can we spot a good leader?

Good leaders:

Unify and Don’t Divide. Good leaders never create divisions in their constituents, creating a “we vs. they” effect.
Achieve Results But Limit Collateral Damage. A good leader is effective, but never at the cost of hurting the well-being of followers, or destroying the environment, or turning friends into foes.
Share the Leadership With Followers. They work with followers, consulting with them, caring for them, and developing their shared leadership capacity.
Leave the Team, Organization, or Nation Better Off Than They Found It.


Chaleff, Ira (2009). The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler.

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

Riggio, Ronald E (in press). The social psychology of good and bad leadership.

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