Accountability for Bad Leadership

Leaders everywhere are in disrepute. Hardly a day goes by without news of corporate ethical violations, financial fudging and CEO failures.

Harvard Business School Professor Barbara Kellerman criticizes the leadership-development industry in her new book, The End of Leadership (HarperBusiness, April 2012). She asserts:

  • Leaders at every level, across all industries, are failing the people who depend on them.
  • Leadership programs have done an inadequate job of producing effective and ethical leaders.
  • We don’t really know how to grow good leaders, and we know even less about how to stop or slow the bad ones.
  • Today’s business environment is rapidly changing in ways leaders are unable or unwilling to grasp.
  • Followers are disappointed and disillusioned, even though they are more empowered, emboldened and entitled than ever before.

Leadership’s Devolution

Until only recently, we presumed that leaders should dominate and followers must do as they’re told. But after several revolutions, labor movements, human-rights legislation and the spread of democracy, the world has radically changed.

Power, authority and influence are in scarce supply for even the most charismatic CEOs, and continuing to devolve. Workers in the middle and at the bottom of the hierarchy have an expanded sense of entitlement, but they are demanding more and giving less. Technology has helped level the playing field.

The majority of workers are often indifferent, disengaged or outright resistant. There are only two reasons they’ll follow a leader:

  1. They have to.
  2. They want to.

The end of the 20th century marked the demise of command-and-control leadership, although some bosses stubbornly insist on trying to make it work. In its place, leaders are advised to become more participatory–to lead by cooperation and collaboration.

Leadership success is judged on three criteria:

  • Is the leader ethical?
  • Is he/she effective?
  • Does the business make money and provide jobs?

In the workplace, however, followers judge their leaders and ask:

  1. Does my boss have my best interests in mind (and does he/she even know what they are)?
  2. Is my boss looking out for the company’s best interests?
  3. Why should I believe, follow and trust this person?

There is no leadership without follower-ship. Good leadership requires good followers, who may be passive or active (depending on context). But followers have generally been slow to embrace empowerment and participate in the leader/follower tango for various reasons.

Flawed Followers

Perhaps today’s leaders can get away with various and sundry peccadilloes because their followers or board fail to demand accountability. Many of us are too timid, disengaged, fearful, or alienated to speak up, making it easy for corporate leaders to do what they want–and what’s best for their bank accounts.

The leadership-development industry has become huge, with $50 billion a year spent on corporate training. Shouldn’t the curriculum include elements of followership or creating cultures of trust?

Kellerman asks those in charge of leadership-development programs to question the assumptions the industry promotes:

  • Leadership can be learned by most.
  • Leaders matter more than anyone else.
  • Context is tertiary.

She also suggests several important mindset shifts based on these assumptions:

1. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership by changing human nature.
No amount of preaching or sermonizing–no exhortations to virtuous conduct, uplifting thoughts or wholesome habits–will obviate the fact that our nature is constant (even when our behaviors change).

2. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership without stopping and slowing bad followership.
Leaders and followers are always interdependent.

3. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership by sticking our heads in the sand.
Amnesia, wishful thinking, the lies we tell as individuals and organizations, and all of the other mind games we play to deny or distort reality get us nowhere. Avoidance inures us to the costs and casualties of bad leadership, allowing them to fester.

What Leaders Can Do

Leaders can become more effective and ethical by following these steps:

  • Limit tenure in positions of power; share power.
  • Don’t believe your own hype; get and stay real.
  • Compensate for your weaknesses by hiring and delegating well.
  • Stay balanced and healthy.
  • Take time to for Self Reflection.
  • The mission is always first.
  • Develop a personal support system (mentor, advisor, coach, best friend).
  • Establish a culture of openness in which diversity and dissent are encouraged.
  • Be creative, reflective and flexible.
  • Avoid groupthink; ask the right kinds of questions.
  • Question assumptions; get reliable and complete information.
  • Establish checks and balances.

What Followers Can Do

If bad leaders are to be stopped or slowed, followers must play a bigger part. But many followers consider the price of intervention to be too high. There are real benefits for going along, along with real costs and risks for not going along. We often choose to mind our own business.

Nevertheless, incompetent and unethical leaders cannot function without followers. Followers can strengthen their ability to resist bad leaders by observing these guidelines:

  • Empower yourself.
  • Be loyal to the whole, not to any one person.
  • Be skeptical; leaders are not gods.
  • Find allies; develop your own sources of information.
  • Be a watchdog (especially if the board seems too compliant).
  • Take collective action (even on a modest scale, such as assembling a small group to talk to the boss).
  • Hold leaders accountable; use checks and balances already in place.
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