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Strategic Leadership Institute

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What if My Good Leader is Bad for You?

19/05/2011 10:05


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 thesustainability 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 article.