What if My Good Leader is Bad for You?

By Manie Bosman

I’ve often been fascinated by how easily we refer to “good” or “bad” leadership without questioning the premises on which these terms are constructed. How do we distinguish “good” from “bad”?

Think about it – whether we’re talking about Nelson Mandela, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Golda Meir, Barack Obama, Muammar Gaddafi, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Ghandi, or Captain Kirk – the greatness or “goodness” of a leader remains subjective and is always evaluated from the perspective of a particular individual or interest group. Some have suggested that we should rather talk about leadership effectiveness instead of good or bad leadership. Effectiveness would then indicate to what extent the leader does “what works” to promote the group’s success or best interests.

The problem is that the process of measuring effectiveness still remains subjective. For instance, from a Nazi perspective, Hitler was a very effective leader (at least up to a point), but from an Allied perspective he was a murderous and ruthless dictator. So who is ultimately in a position to objectively evaluate him as leader?

In a recent discussion of the same topic on LinkedIn, Bill Withers suggested that the sustainability of the leader’s behaviour should be added to the measurement. In other words, a (oops, I nearly said “good”) leader’s effective behaviour should always contribute to sustainability in the environment where he leads (as opposed to merely effective behaviour that could benefit some but harm others, which would be non-sustainable). Bill’s suggestion can certainly be applied in homogenous environments where there is general consensus on what would be beneficial and sustainable and what not.

However, it is often not possible to reach consensus on even the most basic issues, which is why we have different political parties, thousands of church denominations and a choice between Coke and Pepsi. Today most people would agree that what Hitler did worked against creating a “sustainable neighbourhood”, which means he was a “bad” leader. However, I am sure that an old diehard Nazi reminiscing about what “might have been” if Germany won the war would argue that Hitler’s plan for a global Third Reich would indeed have been a sustainable neighbourhood. Take a more recent example – what is beneficial for the American shareholders of a multinational company might not be beneficial for the worker in the company’s maquiladora factory in El Salvador.

So it seems no matter how hard we try to find an objective measurement or definition for “good” or “bad” leadership, we’re always going to end up with a final subjective judgement call. Unless… we can find and agree on a set of core values (as opposed to objectives) that serves as guiding principles to direct our behaviour as leaders. I will discuss that option in a future blog entry.


About Manie Bosman

Manie Bosman is Founder and CEO of the Strategic Leadership Institute. He is a leadership development consultant specializing in the emerging fields of neuroleadership and neurosafety. Based in Pretoria, South Africa, Manie has more than 20 years of international experience in cross-cultural interaction, diversity management, change management, public speaking, communication, corporate training and team development. He holds a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership and believes that effective leadership is the key determiner of success in any venture, group or organization.
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4 Responses to What if My Good Leader is Bad for You?

  1. I am not sure if I completely agree with the ,,sustainability” argument for good leadership. When you take it to the extreme, and you take, for instance, Julius Ceasar, he must be a bad leader because the Roman Empire was not sustained. What if South Africa take a ( God forbid) course that is totally against what a leader like Mandele stood for…? Surely we cannot rate his leadership towards everything that happens in a ”post Mandela” era?

    Some great leaders are there to lead people, organizations or countries towara temporary goal or achievement.

    I would rather argue that we rate leadership towards a very specific and contextual goal or goals. Sustainability could be very misleading when rating leadership.

    • Manie Bosman says:

      The problem with all these “measurements” of leadership is that they remain subjective at best. You’re absolutely right about the fact that sustainability would imply that long-term success is the only measurement for leadership, which of course is not true. Measuring leadership against performance involving specified goals is probably the way to go, but that brings us back to “effectiveness” which is still subjective. My goals might be beneficial to my people, but they might be harmful to you. This is why I am inclined to propose a set of core values that serves as guiding principles (directing our behaviour as leaders) as a more objective measurement of “good” or bad” leadership. The degree to which the leader apply these values or adhere to them would then determine whether they should be regarded as either “good” or “bad”. In a sense the degree to which the leader submits to his/her inner voice and principles (values-based) becomes the critical factor. However, in reality values are also subjective, so maybe what I am saying is that unless you believe in an ultimate, universal, unchangeable and clearly defined set of values, “good” or “bad” will remain subjective!

  2. Adele says:

    Is part of being an effective leader not the measure of influence that the leader has and the degree to which his/her followers share and buy into the vision and wish to cooperate? In other words, the degree to which the leader can inspire followers. And then after that, the leader’s ability to keep that vision and passion alive.

    I think if a leader desires to achieve results without harming anyone, that could surely increase his/her true influence and earn him more respect, which in turn could lead to more willingness to cooperate, and better effectiveness in achieving goals? And at least he/she can leave a positive legacy which I think will make the leadership style sustainable in the sense that others might want to emulate it because of the positive results. To me, Nelson Mandela is a good example of this.

    I believe that servant-leadership is an effective way of achieving goals and a vision. (Effectiveness and “goodness” in a leader do not always go together, I think, and I agree that “goodness” can be subjective, but if a leader is effective and has pure motives to prosper and not harm others, that to me is true leadership!)

  3. Manie Bosman says:

    Adele, you make some valid observations. The fact is that “effective” leadership is not necessarily “good” leadership, and vice-versa. Also, while a leader’s ability to inspire and influence followers to pursue a vision is generally a good indication of his/her leadership proficiency, some power-hungry dictators such as Hitler was very good at this. I guess this means that trying to find a universally applicable definition for “good” and “bad” leadership would always fail unless can find and agree on a set of core values (as opposed to objectives) that serves as guiding principles to direct our behaviour as leaders. Do you agree?

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