The Answer to “Why Do Bad Leaders Rise?”

In last week’s post I asked how it is that certain people utterly lacking in leadership skills manage to rise to, and hang onto, significant leadership positions. Is it that “corporate psychopaths” have an advantage when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder, as some research has suggested? Or is life just not fair? I’d wondered about this phenomenon for years without arriving at much of an answer.


An article in the June Harvard Business Review (“21st Century Talent Spotting,” by Claudio Fernandez-Araoz) finally gave me a clue. In discussing how to hire and promote senior managers, the article lists the following eight leadership competencies:  1) Strategic Orientation, 2) Market Insight, 3) Results Orientation, 4) Customer Impact, 5) Collaboration and Influence, 6) Organizational Development (that’s about attracting and developing talent), 7) Team Leadership, and 8) Change Leadership.

As I read through the eight abilities, I found myself using them to do a rough-and-ready assessment of one of the worst leaders I ever knew. Clancy (not his real name) was a senior leader two or three levels down from the apex of a global corporation. Despite the poor-to-middling financial results of his division, terrible employee and customer retention, and communication skills that fell flat whether directed upward, outward, or downward, Clancy enjoyed the full support of his bosses and had been promoted rapidly. His early advances could be explained by a booming economy that hid a multitude of leadership sins, but post-2008, it was harder to explain the organization’s tolerance for a leader who failed to deliver on so many levels.

Clancy, however, had one leadership competency nailed: Results Orientation (number 3 on the list above). Fernandez-Araoz defines it as “a commitment to demonstrably improving key business metrics.” On each of the other competencies, I’d give Clancy a 1 on a 1-5 scale. On Results Orientation, however, I’d give him a 5.

Clancy wasn’t any good at thinking strategically, lacked all interest in talking with customers or developing talent, and sowed fear and mistrust throughout any team under his charge. Nobody, including peers, wanted to work with him. In short, he couldn’t lead a bug out of a paper bag.

But: his commitment to financial metrics was absolute. He monitored sales forecasts with hawk-like concentration. He built and analyzed spreadsheets better than any CFO. When it came to budget tracking, he was as accurate and reliable as a Rolex watch. And, there was nothing he would not do in order to ensure the numbers were met; he’d have sold his grandmother, as the saying goes, for a decent operating profit.

Clancy’s lack of the other seven competencies meant that a sound foundation for truly good financial results—for sustained, profitable growth—didn’t exist. Nevertheless, his unswerving dedication to making the numbers meant three things happened at the end of each fiscal year:

  • He had delivered at least an acceptable profit across his group as a whole;
  • He had built a detailed record of his financial stewardship; and
  • He could present that record to upper management and talk about it with confidence.

These three things earned him the respect and appreciation of the corporation’s executives like nothing else could. They knew that, no matter what happened, Clancy cared about what they cared about. They trusted him to have their interests—the shareholders’ interests—at heart, and to let nothing stand in the way of achieving their mutual goals. I don’t think they were blind to his faults as a leader, but his results-orientation overshadowed those faults.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to know many leaders who had the other seven competencies in spades: they were amazing strategists, innovators, customer-relationship builders, influencers, coaches, team builders, or change champions—sometimes all of the above.  As I think about that pantheon of leaders, however, I realize that their commitment to Competency No. 3 (“demonstrably improving key business metrics”), while it may have been pretty strong, was never quite as strong as their commitment to Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. If forced to prioritize, they’d put short-term financial results second.

Some of those leaders ended up building great companies of their own; some of them rose moderately high in other people’s companies. But none of them rose anywhere near the top of a public corporation. In order to do that, you must be supremely results-oriented.

Like Clancy, you can de-prioritize the rest.

And that’s how bad leaders rise.


What do you think? Can a terrible leader rise as long as he or she is doggedly committed to achieving short-term financial results? When have you seen this phenomenon occur? Is there any remedy?

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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3 Responses to The Answer to “Why Do Bad Leaders Rise?”

  1. Kate says:

    I continue to wonder (naively, perhaps) how The Powers That Be lose sight of the long-term impact of supporting leaders who focus exclusively on results while disregarding people. It’s just so… short-sighted. Clancy will not be able to keep a good team who can achieve his coveted results if he continues alienating everyone around him.

    • I wonder, too. It is short-sighted, and it’s surprising when the Powers That Be don’t notice how fleeting are the results achieved by the Clancys of the world. But I guess it’s easier to play a kind of financial shell-game than actually to build something for lasting results.

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