Bad Leadership – Book Review

Bad Leadership
Author: Barbara Kellerman
Publisher: Harvard Business School Press
ISBN-13: 978-1591391661

Review by Simon Caudwell.

‘The human animal resembles the baboon,’ says Kellerman (2004, xiv). She argues (p4) that leadership and coercion are not unrelated and (p6) that without checks and balances, ‘power is certain to be abused.’  Contrasting this picture of an aggressive alpha male with the observation (p3) that most current academic studies on leadership have an optimistic bias, she offers a reminder (p15) that, ‘People in a state of nature are not, in the usual sense of the word, “good”,’ and urges a more intentional study of the dark side of leadership.

Based on her analysis of hundreds of case studies, Kellerman develops her own typology, listing (p38) seven distinct categories of bad leadership: incompetent; rigid; intemperate; callous; corrupt; insular; evil, which she illustrates with eye-opening accounts of well-known bad leaders. She then prescribes some best leadership practices, designed to constrain such baboon-ish behaviour.

When leadership itself is hard to define – Bass (1990, cited in Gill, 2006, p9), found over 1500 definitions – what hope is there for an explanation of Bad Leadership?

For Kellerman, ‘bad’ means either ineffective, in the sense of ‘fails to produce the desired change’ (p33), or unethical, or both. She extends a broad definition of unethical to include violating ‘common codes of decency and good conduct’ (p34), emphasizing one of James MacGregor Burns’ principles (Burns, cited in Kellerman, 2004, p34), that ‘Ethical leaders put their followers’ needs before their own. Unethical leaders do not.’  This permitted range of meaning is more suggestive than Lubit’s (2004, p67) dictionary definition of ‘breaking rules’, allowing Kellerman to address many all-too-recognizable leadership deficiencies, the more serious of which may be best explained in Transformational terms, as failures in inspiration; empowerment; trust-building; or seeking the ‘greater common good’ (Northouse, 2009, p186).

However, by her own admission, both the ineffective/unethical distinction (p32), and her own seven-fold typology (p38) are open to argument. She defends the pragmatic usefulness of these categories, but the lack of any theoretical underpinning remains a key weakness.  Lubit’s (2004) study of toxic managers and subordinates seems stronger in this regard, attempting to explain defective character traits in psychological terms and proposing emotionally intelligent responses appropriate to each related toxic behaviour, but it falls down in treating individuals in isolation.

Kellerman does at least succeed in demonstrating that followers are frequently implicated in the sins of the leader. She abandons the simple trait model, recognizing that leadership – good or bad – is better described, as Northouse (2009, p3) would have it, as, ‘a transactional event that occurs between the leader and the followers.’ She urges us (p226) to:

Resist the dominant model – the leader-centred model – and embrace a more holistic one. Leaders should be looked at only in tandem with their followers.

However her case studies remain at a descriptive or, at best, diagnostic level, and the closing sections for each (entitled ‘The benefit of hindsight’) merely restate what went wrong, stopping well short of explanatory power. After a detailed account of Bill Clinton’s inadequate response to the Rwandan genocide, Kellerman concludes (p190) that,

Standing by and doing nearly nothing while eight hundred thousand people are being slaughtered in three months’ time is not acceptable […],

which is frustratingly self-evident rather than insightful.

Her final chapter provides self-help checklists of correctives for leaders and for followers, but these too are disappointing, having the feel of ad hoc summaries of accumulated leadership truisms.

It is Jean Lipman-Blumen who comes to the rescue, delving deepest into the human psyche. She too lists (2005, p19) several recognisable ‘destructive behaviours of toxic leaders’ along with some of their underlying ‘dysfunctional personal characteristics’ (p21), but then, surpassing Kellerman, she provides excruciating but compelling explanations of how our internal psychological needs and insecurities (chapters 2 and 3) and our fears about the external world (chapter 4) interact with those of the toxic leader, leading us unwittingly to help sustain a toxic environment. Compared with Kellerman’s correctives, Lipman-Blumen is able to offer far more sophisticated and strategic advice (2005, part IV) on how to identify and escape toxic leadership by acknowledging and overcoming our anxieties.

Kellerman’s analysis of Bad Leadership is a straightforward and sometimes fascinating read and her categories of badness do provide a useful framework for talking about leadership problems, but for explanations of underlying causes, for a better engagement with the subtleties of the real world and for some truly satisfying ‘aha’ moments, it is Lipman-Blumen we need.

Gill, R. (2006) Theory and Practice of Leadership, London: SAGE Publications.
Kellerman, B. (2004) Bad Leadership: What it is, How it happens, Why it matters,  Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005) The Allure of Toxic Leaders: why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians – and how we can survive them, New York: Oxford University Press.
Lubit, R.H. (2004) Coping with Toxic Managers, Subordinates…and other difficult people, Upper Saddle River: Financial Times Prentice Hall.
Northouse, P.G. (2009) Leadership: Theory and practice, 5th ed., Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Back to Issue 39

Have your say

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s