man 162951 1920

How much harm can a bad boss do?

By Anna Campbell

I have come across a number of poor leaders or managers lately and seeing the impact they have on those around them has made me wonder: does a bad leader do more damage to an organisation than a good leader does good?  

When things are going badly, we cry out: there's no leadership in this company/industry, or, we need more innovation.

Are we simply crying out for silver bullets in tough times? Maybe, but there is an old saying that "the fish rots from the head'' and I have seen some spectacular examples of organisational culture killed by a bad egg at the top.  

I am sure we can all give examples of bad leaders or bosses in our careers, but sometimes pinpointing exactly why those bosses are bad is more challenging.

What does make a leader bad? According to Susan Lucia Annunzio, the author of Contagious success: Spreading high performance throughout your organisation, there are a number of behaviours bad leaders display including: micromanagement; lacking trust; hoarding information; short-term thinking; disrespectfulness of others; shirking responsibility (blaming others); running a personal agenda; and undervaluing learning.  

How about a game of bad-boss bingo: how many of those behaviours does your boss display?

Something I have found, is that bad leaders are often quite good at showing a different face externally or upwards to that which they show internally or downwards - in other words they "manage up well''.

I am always deeply suspicious of people like that, but I am also stunned at how often people in governance positions are willing to take a leader at face value and are unwilling to dig a little deeper within an organisation to find out what is really going on - even when there is obvious cultural unhappiness.  

In her book, Ms Annunzio cites an international study on high-performance groups, which found that high-performance groups all over the world displayed the same behaviours - which are pretty much the opposite of those described above.

Interestingly though, the leaders or managers of those high-performing groups worked hard to protect their group from toxic wider organisational cultures.

I have worked in an organisation like this, with a great leader and I remember him saying to me, when I expressed surprise at the negative culture of our wider organisation, "well it's my job to protect you from all that stuff''. And protect us he did.

We were a happy, internationally regarded group, well protected from the muppets at the top!  

In describing high-performing groups, Ms Annunzio says it is the environment a leader creates, rather than any particular charismatic traits of that leader.

In this respect, it's hard to beat the words of Peter Drucker, "culture eats strategy for breakfast''.  To make our organisations and companies better than they are, we do need innovation. That is absolutely true.

But, innovation and creative thinking will be stifled under bad leadership. I ask that those in the positions of employing leaders and managers, dig a little deeper with respect to their decision-making and their monitoring.

Sometimes a good quarterly financial return is a result of cost-cutting and short-term thinking doesn't reflect a healthy organisation.

Great organisational cultures lead to long-term success. We need to look beyond the numbers and find out what is really happening and sometimes that means getting out of the board room or the ivory tower.  

And in answer to my question: is bad leadership worse than good leadership is good? I believe bad leadership is worse. We must not accept second-rate leaders if we want success for our companies and organisations.

A fish, does indeed, rot from the head.