Leadership Is Amoral: Review of Kellerman's "Bad Leadership"

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I recently ran across Barbara Kellerman’s Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters (Leadership for the Common Good) (2004, Harvard Business School Press). Kellerman makes the argument that the current thinking on leadership is that it is always positive. Hitler is a bad leader because he did evil. People don’t talk about bad leadership and have focused almost entirely on positive leadership.

As she points out, what is bad to you might not be bad to me.

She creates a typology of 7 Types of Bad Leadership, with four for ineffective leadership (a quatrile!) and three for evil leadership.

Most of the book is not worth the price of admission, frankly. She ignores a massive amount of work in genetics that studies on antisocial tendencies (it seems that this is a spectrum) and how leaders tend to have some of these to be effective.

But she did show me that most people think leadership is good.

It’s not: leadership is amoral.

Leadership, Elliott Jaques argues, is an attribute of management. This is one of his great contributions to the field. It’s not a separate thing. You don’t have leaders vs. managers. Leadership is to manager like length is to stick. It’s a property, not a thing. Leadership is amoral, neither good nor bad in itself, a property that can be used to a variety of ends.

Neither of them deals with the animal part of us that gets us to follow sociopaths, although Jaques ignores it more completely in his organizational writing. There is something about sociopaths that is hypnotic, that gets into our heads. Kellerman seems fairly naive about the power of the sociopath to get us to do something we would not normally do, or become mesmerized.

Nor does she provide any meaningful solution. “Work harder against them!” is not helpful. Telling leaders that they need to work against their animal impulses is not all that useful because: (a) many have antisocial tendencies and (b) there are few Washingtons or Gandhis.

It seems that sociopath, psychopath, borderline personality and aggressive conduct disorder are difficult to tease out in the current neuroscience, for all that psychology says, and leaders are often on this spectrum. Great leaders like Washington are definitely a bit antisocial (he has been accused of being a functioning borderline personality) but who by dent of other personality gifts mediate this by controlling their worst tendencies. Washington wanted to be remembered in History so would do things that he frankly didn’t think much of. It’s clear that men followed Washington, not so much the ideas of the revolution, and that this worship was in part because of the mesmerizing qualities that people on this spectrum have. Washington is possibly one of the greatest leaders in history because an entire nation worshipped him and yet he limited his own power over them.

For more interesting reading on this issue of the power of evil leaders see Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend by Oakley.

The problem is that management theorists have not created a system that can address the fact that evil people will always be with us. The American form of government is designed to mitigate the rise of individual and collective despots, dictators and majorities.

Wilfred Brown’s work with Elliott Jaques did something similar at Glacier. He understood that he had to, in Allistair Mant’s words, constitutionalize work relations with different structural components. There was a strong work hierarchy balanced by a strong representational body with veto power over changes to policy. This structure, if more formally constitutionalized than Brown thought necessary, can resist evil leaders. Jaques form in Requisite Organization may seem overly structured but it provides the basis for finding sociopaths in management by having clear accountabilities and through the manager-once-removed relationship with workers.

In RO’s formulation, your boss’s boss has to meet with you for an in-depth conversation regularly, Not some idiotic “performance review” that accomplishes little in a lot of fuss but a real conversation about your work and your future development. It has the potential to reveal antisocial behaviours early, if the manager-once-removed is not himself in thrall to the sociopath.

In the end, no structure will prevent people from following sociopaths but by having structural roles for Fools and Prophets you provide a way to slow them down.

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