Why Bad Leaders Rise: Part I

“How on earth did he get to be CEO?”

“I can’t believe they gave her that promotion.”

“He has management’s full support. How can they not see the damage he does?”


At one point or another we’ve all marveled, not in a good way, about how somebody who lacked even rudimentary leadership skills and who spread misery like a toddler spreads grape jelly ended up in a position of responsibility.

“How to deal with a bad boss” has been a popular topic to write and talk about for as long as there have been bosses (i.e., forever), but in recent years I’ve noticed an increase in the number of articles and blog posts that wonder why there are bad bosses at all. If someone is no good at leadership, what allows him or her to attain a leadership position and to remain there, sometimes for decades? Why do bad leaders rise?

A much-quoted 2010 research study found that psychopaths—that is, people without a conscience—exist with greater frequency at senior levels of organizations than at junior levels. Some have suggested that this is because the chief characteristic of psychopaths, lack of empathy, is the very thing that allows such people to reach the top of corporate ladders with more-than-usual speed. Those willing to step on fingers tend to climb higher and faster than their more squeamish (slash ethical) colleagues. A recent article on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s staff and the “Bridgegate” scandal lends support to this view with a look at the empathy deficit of some political leaders.

I suppose psychopaths might have an advantage when it comes to seizing power. But even granted that’s true, I’m still left with the question of why a fair number of garden-variety, non-psychopathic-but-still-very-bad leaders ascend to high positions. And for a long time, all I’ve been able to scrape up as an answer to that question is, “Life isn’t fair.”

Last week, though, I had a small “Eureka!” moment. It happened when I was reading an article in the June issue of Harvard Business Review called “21st Century Talent Spotting” (by Claudio Fernandez-Araoz). The main point of the piece is that business today is too complex for the old competency-based hiring models; instead, the author says, selection and promotion should be based on potential, which is made up of qualities such as motivation, curiosity, and insight. That was all quite interesting, but the part of the article that really caught my attention was a sidebar called “What Else Should You Look For?” which presented a list of eight standard leadership competencies:

  1. Strategic Orientation
  2. Market Insight
  3. Results Orientation
  4. Customer Impact
  5. Collaboration and Influence
  6. Organizational Development
  7. Team Leadership
  8. Change Leadership

Reading through these competencies and their definitions, I suddenly found myself using them to assess one of the worst leaders I’ve ever come across. I’ll call him Clancy.

Clancy was a senior leader just two or three levels down from the pinnacle of a large multinational corporation. Loathed by many, liked by none, and respected by only a few, Clancy nevertheless enjoyed the full support of top management. The reasons were baffling. The divisions he ran didn’t do particularly well financially; employee retention was abysmal; revenues and market share declined year by year. And it wasn’t as if he compensated for these failings with sizzle—by, say, closing big deals, or making great speeches, or glowing with charisma. He never met with customers, and his communication skills were mediocre. He came across poorly on video.

What Clancy did have in abundance, however, was one—just one—of the competencies on the list above. Next week I’ll reveal which one and (with the help of another June HBR article and a classic novel) explain why I believe it to be the secret to his rise, and the rise of many another bad leader.

Which of the eight competencies do you think Clancy had in abundance? What’s your theory about why some very poor leaders attain and hold onto leadership positions?

About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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One Response to Why Bad Leaders Rise: Part I

  1. katerhaney says:

    Cliffhanger! I look forward to reading the next part. Clancy sounds very unpleasant indeed.

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