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What You Can Learn From A Terrible Leader

Contributor: Dan White
Posted: 06/28/2011
Dan White
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It is from our mistakes that we learn the most, writes author Dan White. So what can the worst leadership mistakes of all time teach us? More than you might think. Here are 3 things you can learn from a terrible leader.

Terrible leaders are all around us. They are the business ‘leaders’ who have been ruining corporations and betraying the trust of shareholders, from Enron to Lehman Brothers, bringing western capitalism to its knees. They are the political ‘leaders’ who were oppressing populations in the Middle East and North Africa for decades, as well as British politicians who weren’t able to tell the difference between a salary and an expense claim. And, perhaps most frightening of all, they are the mass of people who go to the office, check their personality, common sense and basic humanity at the door, and then get to work…

Of course, life is complicated, situations are sometimes confusing, pressured and ambiguous, and nobody’s perfect. But really, when did it become alright for a CEO to leave their job prematurely and in disgrace for doing a terrible job – yet with more money than most people earn in a lifetime? I may be a little old-fashioned in this, but I think our leaders should be the best of us. Or, at least, a little bit like us. Or, at the very least not ripping us off and making our lives worse.

Often it is from our mistakes that we learn the most – so why not look at the worst leadership mistakes of all time and learn from those? Here are three lessons we can learn from some Terrible leaders of today:

Lesson 1: It’s About The Organisation – Not You


Many leaders fall into a cyclical trap where they perceive their goal to be the enhancement of their career, their success, or their personal power. This is not what great leadership is about.

For instance, Colman Mockler was the CEO of Gillette when the company invented its blockbuster product – the only razor blade anyone would ever want to use again. He lived in an ordinary house near the head office in Boston where employees would regularly see him sitting out on his porch and say hi. He believed what Gillette did was special and he fought long and hard to prevent the company being acquired in a proxy battle with the Coniston Group so that expensive, but ground breaking research could be continued on Gillette’s Sensor range. He never got caught up in the hype and he saw the leader’s role for what it truly is.

Contrast this with the behaviour of Joe Gregory, the one-time number 2 at Lehman Brothers. He would come to the office from his out-of-town estate by helicopter and return by sea-plane! Or consider former BP Chief executive Tony Hayward off yachting while the Gulf of Mexico burned; he even complained he wanted his life back.

Gregory and Hayward both lost their focus somewhere along the line, where Mockler kept his. Leadership is not about your personal glory and fame, it is about the service you provide to the organisation you lead. Before you read this I bet you’d never heard of Colman Mockler, but consider the relative staying power of Lehman Brothers versus the Gillette razor...

Lesson 2: Put Pride Where It Belongs – What You Do, Not Are

We should take pride in what we and our organisations do for the people we serve, our customers and our people. Too many leaders attach too much pride in the wrong place, i.e. relative market share vs. competitors, becoming "number 1", being the biggest or being the most dominant. This becomes a reflection of their own dominant personalities and is a risky way to do business.

Dick Fuld, also of ex-Lehman fame is a case in point. A ferocious, combative character he was determined to make Lehmans a global success at any cost, despite his reputation for risk management. He said that Lehman was "built to triumph in adversity" and believed that it was "us against the world". This pride led to Lehman’s great fall. But pride can be good, when it is in a job well done. Instead of aiming to be biggest had Lehman’s sought to be the "investors choice" I wonder if they might still be around.

The critical point here is to place the pride in the thing you do, not the thing you are. Becoming number one won’t happen unless you are doing everything your customers need better than anyone else. Leaders who focus on and become obsessed by the former run the risk of forgetting the latter. Let Dick Fuld be a warning to you all...

Lesson 3: Staff Perform, Not Because You're A Hero (Or A Villain)

Too many leaders arrive at work each day with the misplaced belief that their people will perform to a high standard for one of two reasons:

1. You inspire them personally to great heights and they want to do their best for you (hero leadership)

2. You are an intimidating prospect to deal with should anything go wrong, so everyone will try double hard to prevent that from happening in order to keep you happy (villain leadership)

Lord Alan Sugar, Britain’s answer to America’s Donald Trump, is a great example of the more intimidating style of leader. This is probably mostly for the cameras - Lord Sugar is the British star of The Apprentice – and I’m not in a position to comment on his manner in his real world business dealings. But when wannabe leaders on The Apprentice err in their judgment you can be certain they will receive a none-too-delicate dose of vitriol.

One wonders if their performance is more about avoiding Sugar’s wrath or about genuinely coming up with innovative solutions to the task that is set... But it doesn’t really matter whether you set out to be villainous or heroic in your leadership style. Neither of these approaches is sustainable, because sustainable performance - the high performance that just keeps on going and keeps on trying to solve the biggest problems that we face today - that’s not because of you. It comes from the intrinsic motivation of your people themselves – and you can’t force that upon anyone.

Terrible leaders of today and yesterday often point most clearly to what not to do. When we do the opposite of Terrible we might achieve greatness. But critically, when we perceive that there are options, there are choices about what we can and should do, that is when we open the door to truly great leadership...

Based on "The Terrible Leader" by Dan White, released this month by Marshall Cavendish. To hear more of these ideas, you can listen to the podcast with Dan: Leadership Lessons from Genghis Khan.


Thank you, for your interest in What You Can Learn From A Terrible Leader.
Dan White
Contributor: Dan White