Monday, March 07, 2011

Learning From ‘Leaders”

I read a posting recently that was an invitation to obtain free access to a session in which “Leaders” described as great leaders to learn from, the author noted how much he had learned from observing and listening to good leaders in his career. (I failed to save the link and can't find it to properly credit the author by I did see it while reading a post by Michael Brisciana who authors HR perspectives at

While reading this it prompted some thoughts that recur in my mind:
 not all people who are labeled as “leaders” are good, or even leaders for that matter
 that we have gone from describing those ‘in charge’ in business as managers or directors to calling them leaders (perhaps as a result of the plethora of leadership training initiatives in organizations since 2000)
 we learn from bad “leaders” as effectively, if not more so than from good leaders.

I was briefly engaged in a discussion in a Leadership Forum in which I asked the question-why do we call people who are bad at what they do or perhaps even evil (think Hitler) ‘Leaders’? The response was that if a person has followers then they are a leader regardless of whether they are good, bad or evil. If one accepts that definition then yes I guess poor managers can be called leaders-except I don’t accept it. A poor manager is simply that-a poor manager. Should managers in business even be called leaders? Do they really have followers in many cases? After all people are paid to be there, do what they are told and treat that manager with respect-because they are a manager.

Learning from Poor Leaders
When I think about some of my strongest learning moments it is just as often that those experiences occurred because I observed first hand a “leader” showing poor judgement or behaving inexplicably badly towards others and then observing carefully the reactions of those around that leader. Sometimes even seemingly small decisions or acts can have wide ranging effects on the people involved and the ability of those people to carry on the tasks of the business effectively.
Consider the following scenarios-just a few of many experiences I have learned from over two decades working with various management teams (or leadership teams if you prefer):

(1) A senior level manager is called by her staff to help resolve a customer request – she shows up clearly inebriated and is rude to the customer (who happened to be a long term loyal customer); her staff are embarrassed and horrified but sadly this is not the first time she has shown up drunk, just the first time a customer was directly involved. This incident was “too much” and the staff filed a complaint.

(2) A senior level manager makes a decision that affects the way many people conduct their day to day tasks but refuses to discuss the change before implementing it; aside from alienating those involved there was a financial cost to making needed adjustments that would have been accounted for had he taken the time to consult with those affected first. This behaviour was typical of this manager and created similar issues over a number of years.

(3) A mid-level manager repeatedly makes “jokes” about various people in the organization and when advised that these “jokes” were inappropriate and disrespectful, responded that it wasn’t his fault people didn’t have a sense of humour.

(4) Two members of a management team accuse an employee of theft in a management meeting; when questioned by the other team members as to precisely what happened and what proof was evident the accusation fell apart; it became clear after a very long discussion that the two managers had contrived it out of thin air. They had started out demanding that the employee be fired but ended up admitting that there was no evidence any theft had occurred.

(5) A senior level manager who was ‘having a bad day’ lost his temper and destroyed a $20,000 piece of office equipment, in front of staff.

(6) A senior level manager “goes through executive assistants faster than a speeding bullet” was the running joke in one organization. It wasn’t funny for the EA’s involved though, he was abrupt, hyper critical and a micro manager and often left staff in tears. He once stated that he had no idea why his EA’s kept transferring to other managers.

(7) A junior level supervisor bullied one of her direct reports repeatedly, making coworkers uncomfortable and delighted in reminding the employee that she was “so tight” with her boss (a senior VP) that it would not go well if she complained. The CEO’s executive assistant saw the behaviour first hand and raised the problem with The CEO, who spoke to the VP, who spoke to the supervisor. As predicted, it did not go well. The employee resigned a few days later after being ripped to shreds and threatened by the supervisor.

What did I learn from these and many other situations? The impact that these behaviours had on the organization overall was much greater than it might appear first hand.
 Other members of the management team learned to work around them rather than with them
 Employees learned to avoid discussing problems with these managers, often leading to cost, quality, production and customer service problems
 Employee retention, development and morale suffered
 Innovative thinking, project team cohesion, continuous improvement efforts slowed or stopped altogether increasing costs and decreasing sustainability
What was the most important thing I learned from these types of situations? That the ability to listen and understand the perspectives of other people affected by the actions of managers – or – leaders and to take that information to action. Oh-and that I learn as much from poor leaders as I do from good leaders.
What have you learned from a leader-good leaders or not so good?


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  2. Kudos Karin, a very thoughtful and inspiring post. I am lead by these words to think that it is easier to learn from obviously 'not-so-good leaders' then it is those who lead generally well, but who hold "grey areas' (personality quirks) that can't be so well defined. But that for another day... and post. :o)

  3. Thanks Rand! I think what you say makes a lot of sense, we humans seem drawn to paying attention to information that comes with a little drama!