Why Bad Leaders are Successful
There are many answers to why bad leaders are successful, but the most prominent one that comes to mind is that they are skilled at deception and highly motivated for the benefit of themselves. I’ve been working since I was 11 years old, worked at the bottom of organizations and now at the top. Even if I didn’t have a college degree or have read some insane number of leadership books, I’d still have the same opinion about bad leadership.
Bad leaders come in all shapes and sizes, they are people and so, they are all unique. The common thread with bad leaders is they have a negative impact on people. Getting hit with a stick, a fist or 10,000 paper cuts hurts. A lack of love, a lack of consideration, a lack of information, all hurt. Being excluded hurts. At the end, it’s about pain and hurt. Bad leadership becomes the cause of many symptoms and pain.
Why are they successful? Firstly, I’d like to address the concept of success. If success is defined as how much money they make, power, prestige, respect, visibility, and fantastic board presentations or the best resume of all time, this is one definition.
If success is defined as love, true respect, admiration, good fond memories, bettering the lives of themselves and others and leaving a mark not a stain, this is another definition. I am addressing the former concept of success.
The “Me Me Me” concept isn’t new and it can apply to many situations.
I’ll take a quick detour for a little fun.
I used to run a karaoke show in Virginia Beach at a small bar called George and Connie’s. It was a lot of fun and I was helping out a friend who got hurt in an accident. I did the work for his business and shared the profit with him. After a few weeks of running the show, I started finding the professionals. Who were these professional people? They were the ones that had a list of songs that were theirs. They were really good at them and could have probably done something truly professional in another lifetime. They’d come up with a beer in hand in a bar that held 150 people max and sing their hearts out, masters of someone else’s songs. It was a beautiful thing, except for something that I picked up in a nuance.
Many if not most of them weren’t interested in enjoying the time with their friends or singing. They wanted the attention. They wanted to be the best in this little shit hole bar even if it was empty. There is no doubt some practiced at home. I mean some of them picked songs like American Pie by Don Mclean because it took over half the night. They didn’t celebrate the singing from others either. It was all about getting their names on the list. Not only that, they didn’t tip me. Where as other people who had a freaking blast singing songs they didn’t know having fun with friends, tipped the heck out of me and left the bar laughing wrapped up in arms with their friends. For those successful and professional karaoke singers in this little bar or the other bars they would go to, the only real benefit to them was acknowledgement of their greatness. In the end, they were mostly empty vessels and often alone at the bar. By the end of the night, they did their set and many clapped for them but that was about it. I loved to sing and I liked the attention if I could get it as well. When I was going to the places to sing myself, I might get three or four songs in. When I ran the show it wound up being two, one in the start and one in the end. I started to have fun in the service of the others who were enjoying their terrible singing. In the end, I’d rather see people sing horribly happy than beautifully miserable.
Back to the success of bad leaders. Bad leaders are in the position because at some point they did something effective. Notice, I didn’t say “good.” Being effective doesn’t mean good. I can effectively wipe out a family with a fire. They may have performed well as an individual. They may have convinced others of their greatness. They may be effective speakers . They may be effective controllers. Saddam Hussain was effective at controlling the region in Iraq however he committed dozens of war crimes, used chemical weapons against his own people, tortured prisoners, and tried to exterminate the Kurds, among other atrocities. BUT Hey, he did good.. good guy! Success! Not unlike our good guy Saddam, bad leaders can control the region. Control and success relative to control, is difficult to maintain, highly volatile and good for few or some but bad for most. I like to think that business is not war and that business people aren’t warriors. Maybe I’m wrong, I just can’t see Bill Gates gutting Bezos and licking the knife. That’s a personal opinion though. What I have seen is people promoted into leadership roles for political reasons like loyalty or fear. I have seen people in leadership positions manage up and hide or actively obscure what’s going on beneath the waterline. These same people perceive themselves as successful. They practice in their mirrors at home and sing the tune of someone else’s song beautifully.
Human beings are imperfect creatures and we can find flaws in every person including the great and noble former karaoke rock star Howie Cohen. That said, there are bad people out their with either highly selfish intention, lack of caring for others or a myopic world view with hyper focus individualist perspective with talent for the advancement of “me.” Sure, there are people that do this and take care of others, but a 32 year working study of 10 bajillion people and countless situations teaches us that the benefit to others is tangential to the intentional benefit to the receiver. In other words, the “taking care” of others somehow has to be tied to the benefit of me.
Learnable Not Teachable
I’ve found in my life that I learn more from asking questions and interactions vs general pontification and self discovery. Don’t get me wrong, if I am painting something, I have to learn and feel it through my own personal perspective and interactions. When it comes to the business of business and leadership, learning comes through listening and the gifts from others to me. The gift from others is their willingness to share and to help me be the best leader I can be. They lead from where they are and help me learn. It is a service and exchange of participation, engagement and love. In order to teach something one must master it and one must consistently learn and be open to understanding that mastery is not in knowing all but understanding deeply in practice. This means always learning even as the master.
In recent years, I have come to meet many masters of “me” and they are the professors an practicing artists of their own bologna. They seek to always teach and preach but never learn and understand. They profess their understanding of things and stuff but don’t know much beyond the top line. They are professional story tellers but the story is like the songs of the professional karaoke singers, same shit unoriginal and someone else’s song they can croon. A few years ago, a senior leader asked me why my team was so effective and how they could do so many valuable business type things in my care. My answer to them was that my whole job is to share their stories not mine. Our legacy and our business effectiveness is in their care and they are in mine. While I appreciate that the person asked me the question, they were asking more for themselves vs me or the company. They wanted to understand why they perceived I was more effective. They didn’t figure out that it was never about me and always about us.
When leaders act like the great hall professors of yesterday, there is no place for interaction and true learning in any direction. Conversations may as well be fireside chats on YouTube like Townhalls. There isn’t a conversation, just preaching, teaching while their people are reaching (for a drink).
There aren’t teachable moments because there is a lack of willingness to learn. No learning means the masters only have their short list of songs. They may do well with those but as stated earlier, people will be happy to see them leave the stage.
Meaning, Love and Purpose
If you listen to the stories of successful people, there’s a theme. It’s in all the stories and the books written for all time. It’s in your story. You were born, you have a life, good things happened and bad things happened, you have choices and sometimes you don’t have choices on what is happening but choices on how you respond. All said, some part of your situation no matter how dire it is, resides with you. I recently listened to a story about a man who lost all his limbs. In short, he said “I had to lose all my limbs to find happiness.” It’s his journey and as he said “I was bored with life, and now I am on an adventure.” We all need purpose in our lives and the moments that we can have these exchanges of learning and teaching are where we find our value.
The people who are empty vessels with holes in them require a consistent flow of attention on them. If there were no one to provide them the attention, they would have to find another mechanism for purpose. They need purpose and meaning in their lives as well. I’d say Saddam wanted purpose, Hitler wanted purpose, in his book written while serving his five year prison sentence he wrote ” there’s only one right that is sacrosanct: that the purity of the blood should be preserved, thus preserving the best types of human beings and rendering possible a nobler development of humanity itself.” So, meaning and purpose exist and from his frame of mind for the benefit of humanity. Thank G-d he was not wholly effective in his campaign, as I wouldn’t have the ability to write to you today as I most likely would not exist. It could be said and it has been by many I’ve met that my non-existence and death would be for the love of humanity vs the hate for me. The point is selfish leaders without regard for anything beyond themselves and their personal agenda could make cost cutting through the elimination of roles the most beautiful story of caring and concern for the companies to which they are seeking to lead.
To reach others for the greater good, it can’t be through the pulpit alone. It has to be through the practice and exercise of thought, candid conversation and openness to learning, I’d hope that we all understand that humans are not perfect and mistakes will be made but if there is intent and demonstration of love, honesty, acts of transparency and inclusiveness, the people we seek to teach, will teach us and we will learn as leaders which make us all reachable.
If the lessons I have learned are of value to you, I hope they find you well. If you have something to share to which I can learn, I’m listening and seeking to learn every day.
What do you think? I’d like to know.