Bad Leadership – A Great Book


Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters (the book) – Critical Assessment and Personal Reaction


This book is about the dark side of the human condition. It paints leadership in shades of gray and in black.” “Bad Leadership” is the study of rigid, insular, intemperate, incompetent, callous, corrupt, and downright evil leaders throughout time. Not as a model of what to follow but rather as a model of what characteristics in ourselves we should look out for and what characteristics we need to be on the lookout for in the leaders we choose to follow.
Kellerman, the research director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, provides a no holds barred approach to the examination of current and past leaders and reminds us that the human condition still applies to even the most powerful of leaders. Perhaps that is the warning.


Kellerman presents the idea that all leadership books have one thing in common: They assume the leader is pure of heart and wants the organization to succeed. However, as the text illustrates, there are countless leaders who do not have the best of intentions when it comes to either the organization or the people who comprise it. Of course, there are varying degrees to this, but in general, the outcome is usually similar.

Kellerman notes that while not always deliberate, power can and has been used in many ways that do significant harm and that regardless of the reason or intent when harm is done, it is often heavy and widespread, affecting more than just the leader or the organization itself. Sometimes it can affect the community, the state, the nation, or even the world.

Kellerman also argues that it is not entirely the fault of the leaders when this harm occurs. Much of the fault falls on the shoulders of the followers who accept or enable the actions or blindly follow and participate in the harmful acts. This could be due in large part to remaining willfully ignorant of the actions of their leader or simply not understanding the full impact of the actions of which they are partaking.

Major Points

The want and desire to read about great leaders and to notice how our own styles match or mimic theirs are considered natural. Much like trying to see our own flaws are last on our list of things to do, we are often quick to point out the flaws of others while denying such flaws even exist within ourselves. This is very common within the leadership industry, too, as most organizations want to focus on the positive rather than the negative. Kellerman uses the phrase “unfounded sense of optimism” in regard to our self-interest because she recognizes that people simply do not want to dwell on the negative aspects of their own character.

Kellerman presents the idea that the leadership industry is an American idea and that American ideology has played a big role in the attitude and direction the industry has taken. In other words, perhaps the best way to describe this idea would be to expose “American exceptionalism” as the reason for this avoidance of the negative. As though the United States is “qualitatively different,” therefore our leaders and efforts are equally different. A sense of superiority tends to be the norm, and this feeling is encouraged and often promoted via media and cinema. Kellerman might be alluding to the idea that classical conditioning has taken its toll.

However, the valid point of studying and understanding the bad as well as the good is reiterated several times throughout the text. This is not a new idea, however. Instead, it is an idea that has been repeated throughout the ages: one cannot know good unless they know bad. On the other hand, one cannot understand the bad unless they know what is good. Perhaps the ardent study of both is critical. Much like “yin and yang,” used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world; and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another (Yin and yang, 2013). Leadership is no different. Kellerman refers to “Hitler’s Ghost” as an example of ignoring the bad in people, a warning perhaps that we will “distort the enterprise” if we cannot recognize Hitler as a strong leader, similar to that of George Washington.

Kellerman states that political philosophers have generally agreed on one important thing: People in a state of nature are not, in the usual sense of the word, “good,” and the human-animal cannot be relied on to behave well. This is a strong statement and perhaps the central theme or ideology behind the book, as each chapter presents well-known leaders and what their often unchecked power has revealed and or produced.

The text then breaks bad leadership down into categories and provides specific examples of each category: rigid leaders such as Vladimir Putin, insular leaders such as Bill Clinton, intemperate leaders such as Jesse Jackson, incompetent leaders such as Juan Antonio Samaranch, callous leaders such as Rudy Giuliani, corrupt leaders such as Andrew Fastow, and evil leaders such as Saddam Hussein.

Bad Leadership is not just a listing, though. Each leader in each category is evaluated in some way on their personal traits, character, needs, and followers’ needs. Kellerman attempts to place a recipe of bad leadership together as we explore blatant examples within each heading. Not as a way to justify the actions but rather as a way to understand the motives and possibilities of how one “turns bad.”

Once again, the general idea of the book is to understand that people will not always behave when left unchecked, and this includes our leadership. Perhaps, our leadership may be prone to the temptation of acting badly based on certain criteria, including the followers who allow it to occur for any number of reasons.

We must try to understand this and strive to avoid it in our own practice of leadership, as well as be able to recognize it when we find ourselves following someone who holds similar traits or behaves in similar ways to the examples within the book.

Critical Assessment

The idea of putting leadership into context can be daunting. The need for continual compare and contrast analysis of leadership traits and flaws will become obvious after reading Bad Leadership. Your continual study of leadership will become a valuable tool in your leadership belt after coming to this realization. Bad Leadership is in many ways a stark contrast to the Hartwick Classic Leadership Cases, which provides a snapshot of several leaders. The point here merely echoes Kellerman’s as she eluded to the idea that one must know and understand the dark side, as well as the lighter side, to better prepare you for the leaders you may follow, as well as see in yourself the kind of leader you may already be or maybe turning into.

Leadership is not a perfect science. It is an art or philosophy. At best, an abstract idea based on perceptions and frames of reference and culture. However, certain attributes appear to be universal, at least by trait, when considering the good or bad of leadership. For instance, while few agree with the mission of Hitler, it is hard to deny certain leadership abilities of the man. One can only debate the methodical rise and inevitable fall of Time Magazine’s 1938 “Man of the Year” by splitting hairs. Do public speakers ignore the techniques of arguably one of the best orators in history? Do battlefield planners ignore the tactics of Blitzkrieg?

Of course, the answers to these questions are “no.” We must study even the evilest of men better to understand avoidance, prevention, correction, and recovery. Kellerman simply highlights these leaders’ less admirable qualities in an effort to examine the contrast of what good leadership is.

It must be said that even though an evil man does evil things, it does not mean they are incapable of doing certain things absolutely right. Kellerman does not exclude the good attributes or accomplishments of the exampled leaders. She does a great job of explaining how these leaders came to power and why the people continued to follow. A great example of this would be in the evaluation of Vincent Cianci Jr. Kellerman shows the repeated legal challenges and ethical misgivings of Cianci Jr as well as the continued re-election of the man into the position of Mayor. She also provided insight into the growing popularity regardless of the felony convictions. The explanation was based on his looks, his charming character, and the fact the town was growing and cleaning up. Perhaps it is best described as a perception of value. In the end, he kept his followers happy.

Examples such as this are vital when understanding perceptions of leadership. Leadership comes in many packages. Kellerman presents roughly thirty examples of decent leadership gone bad with the general conclusion that sometimes, it can be the snake oil in a pretty bottle, the promise of prosperity when there is no prosperity to be had, or an adjustment of perception or expectation of the ethical standards. Bad Leadership inadvertently also presents the contrasting idea that sometimes leadership can be a bar of gold covered in mud and scratches.

Bad Leadership does not come out to say that all leaders are “bad.” However, having opened up the book with the idea that all people are not naturally or inheritably “good,” we must understand that all leaders are people. If this is true, then one can only conclude that all leaders are not necessarily good. This presents a plethora of ideas when considering the theoretical issues and topics for further discussion. The irony is that Kellerman presents leaders such as John Adams and Jack Welch as good leaders. Can these ideas be debated? Does this allude to a lack of research on the part of Kellerman?

It is safe to imagine that Kellerman had done her research before making such a claim. Perhaps her statements are nothing more than an example of the contrast. The point is not to insinuate that she had not researched but rather to point out that even the best of leaders can be critically analyzed and placed into the categories Kellerman presented. To address this point, we must examine her examples.

John Adams did have his finer points, and that is hard to dispute. Being a Founding Father, Vice President to George Washington, and eventually the second President, there is a lot to say about the man. Adams’ list of qualities runs long, and his reputation among the people of that time (and even today) could be defined under the highest regard. Yet, Adams was also responsible for things such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which limited immigration and free speech (The Library of Congress, 2012). We could also address things like his “Midnight Appointments,” where Adams passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 and spent his final days filling these new appointments with Federalists (2 Stat. 89. February 13, 1801). One could even look down on Adams for defending the British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trial, having publicly depicted himself as a patriot prior (John Adams Heritage, 2013). By these events alone, could we not fit Adams into several categories provided by Kellerman? Do these actions make Adams a bad leader?

Welch is not immune, either. In fact, research indicates that there was a high level of controversy surrounding Welch and his business practices. Barry Ritholtz, an equities analyst, named one of 2010’s “15 Most Important Economic Journalists” by The Daily Beast, has written several position papers on the subject. They are not exactly flattering.

Ritholtz says (in reference to Welch) that “He became CEO of General Electric in 1981, just before an 18 year bull market in big cap stocks began. he left in 2001, just as the market implosion was getting rolling. GE’s revenues grew 385% under his watch, but the company’s market cap grew 4000%. How did that happen? GE increased earnings over the years, and with stunning regularity, managed a quarterly profit beat. Indeed, it was too regular: After the 2000 crash, we learned of earnings manipulation and accounting shenanigans. The criticism was GE Capital acted as an opaque leveraged hedge fund that always be counted on to help GE beat by a penny (GE eventually had to settle accounting fraud charges with the SEC) (Ritholtz, 2012).” Ritholtz also provides detailed charts and figures to support his claims as well as comparisons to Welch’s predecessors for clarification. If these allegations are true, that would easily put Welch under headings such as “Corrupt” or “Callous,” at the very least. Does even the allegation make Welch a bad leader? Does it tarnish the name? Will history give him a pass?

That being said, it should be noted that Kellerman is extremely accurate in her assessment of the leaders in the text. Once again, just about any leader could, in some way, shape, or form, be placed into the categories provided with enough effort. This is due in great part to the perception of their rule and their actions while in position.

Research indicates that the critical perceptions of each leader are relatively similar to Kellerman’s in regard to the leaders presented and by those who study the topic. However, the public and the general perception are still very much a factor in regard to at least some of these leaders. Kellerman, too, maybe a victim of this in part, as demonstrated previously with Adams and Welch.

The point hits a little closer to home when we evaluate people such as Rudy Giuliani, Bill Clinton, and Vladimir Putin. The idea is that state-run media helps form and perhaps manipulate the opinions of the low-information masses, and these perceptions can often last a lifetime (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013). Public perception runs deep, and often people will simply follow what they feel or what they think they know.

A great example of this would be Giuliani. Giuliani is still viewed as a public hero in the United States because he just happened to be at the helm of New York City during 9/11. However, as Kellerman points out, many of his followers felt he was “unresponsive” as a leader. It is as though everything he did while in the office is almost irrelevant due to that tragedy.

Bill Clinton is often revered in many circles due to the misunderstanding that he put the US in the black economically speaking. While entirely inaccurate and largely due to the manipulation and change of tracking information, he continues to be looked at as a good leader (Weisenthal, 2012, Moore, 1998). His administration was riddled with black marks to include impeachment and numerous opportunities to seize or kill Bin Laden that were all rejected by Clinton himself (Crumpton, 2012, Lt. Col. Patterson, 2003). Yet, he remains a favorite. In fact, sixty-nine percent of Americans in a recent Gallup poll rated him favorably (Saad, 2012).

On the other hand, the US media has spent a great deal of time making Vladimir Putin out to be a Joseph Stalin “Part Two” due to his KGB background and communist ties. Still, almost half of Russians said they still trust Putin, with another 8 percent saying they have “absolute trust.” Fifty-six percent said Putin was responsible for Russia’s recent economic, social and international achievements (UPI Poll, 2013). Many leaders in the United States cannot even claim such numbers.

My Personal Reaction

It is important to note that historically speaking, people have been killed for much less when addressing the fault of leaders in such an open manner. Kellerman should be commended for her efforts as well as her assessment of bad leadership in general. In fact, such reviews are rare, a testament to her book’s innovative nature.

Kellerman gave me the idea that perhaps there is no such thing as a “good leader” or a “perfect leader.” Instead, perhaps there are only “not so bad” leaders or “decent” leaders. Maybe there are just varying degrees of leadership and ideas to both follow and avoid.

Kellerman also helps demonstrate the importance of recognizing bad leadership as critical if we are ever to recognize a decent leader. For instance, George Washington is a renowned leader the world over. He was a leader that multiple sides of the conflict could recognize as powerful. However, George Washington supported the Federalists while claiming to be neutral on numerous occasions. He was also a plantation owner and owned 277 slaves in his own right or by marriage while fighting for basic human rights at the same time. Sure, his will provided for freeing his slaves upon the death of Martha, and he privately expressed strong support for the gradual abolition of slavery, but he refused to free his slaves during his lifetime (MountVernon, 2013). Was George a good leader? In comparison to Hitler, absolutely. Yet, we still see flaws in the general makeup of the ideology that drove him. Perhaps this is just the human factor at play.

Let’s take Bad Leadership as a list of general character flaws that need to be recognized and evaluated within ourselves. We need to ensure that we have the ability, knowledge, or skill to make the right decisions; we need to be flexible and have self-control and compassion. We need to be honest and law-abiding leaders, have an open mind when it comes to others and their beliefs, and finally, we need to ensure that our actions can be interpreted as morally sound.

Though as stated before, this book is not entirely about self-reflection. As we must look inside ourselves and strive for excellence, we should also look upon those leaders we would choose to follow to ensure that they, too, strive for the same things because, as Kellerman points out, followers are responsible in great part for the harms dished out by their leaders.

It is hard not to imagine change occurring when addressing our own flaws. Are there times when we are any one of the seven headings presented in the text? I am sure there are. However, being the critic that I am of leadership within corporations and government in general, I do try hard to alter behaviors that would reflect upon my family or me in a negative light. I believe our biggest challenge is being flexible, and it would be safe to say that this is an area we should monitor constantly. It takes practice, but I know that I am much more flexible than I used to be for having done so.

Bad Leadership was, hands down, one of the better books I have read on leadership thus far. It was innovative, entertaining, thought-provoking, insightful, and full of lessons with clear and concise examples that allow an evaluative eye. One would be hard-pressed to ask for much more.

Interested in leadership books? You might like my article titled, “30 Great Leadership Books for Leadership Pros.


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