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Barbara Kellerman wrote a book on bad leadership 20 years ago. She followed that up with a look at followership – what makes it effective or destructive. More recently, she looked at Donald Trump and his enablers during the pandemic, and how together they failed the needs of the time.

Now the Harvard Kennedy School professor is tying it together in a broad-ranging book with a simple message: Bad leadership inexorably gets worse if allowed to fester. We need to act decisively before it spirals into greater destruction.

Again she stresses the importance of followers who instead of accepting or even buying into bad leadership must fight to counter it before it drags them and their organization – or their country – down. “So far as we know, Hitler never himself killed a single Jew. Some six million Jews died because others, Hitler’s followers, were willing to do his dirty work for him,” she writes in Leadership from Bad to Worse.

Hitler, of course, is an extreme example, but she shows the pattern of leadership deteriorating from bad to worse in case studies of corporate leaders Martin Winterkorn, former chief executive officer of Volkswagen, where emissions standards were deliberately evaded, and Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted of fraud in connection to her blood-testing company, Theranos, as well as China’s leader Xi Jinping and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The daily headlines show us Donald Trump’s leadership becoming more vengeful and ominous, while Elon Musk seems to spiral downward since his purchase of Twitter, which he renamed X. Michael Lewis’s recent book on Sam Bankman-Fried eerily fits the destructive pattern Prof. Kellerman outlines.

Context matters. For political leaders, she points to the failure of capitalism and democracy in recent years to deliver, as the rewards of the economy tilt even more toward the wealthy and governments seem incapable of responding effectively on issues. That may seem far apart from your office’s tyrant of the moment but context also counts there.

She divides bad leadership into four phases, which usually begin, ironically, with positive promises – even grandeur. Most new leaders, of course, talk of a better future. However, she says “good leaders avoid the spectacularly grandiose. They avoid the implication that they and they alone can save us from ourselves. Bad leaders, in contrast, present themselves as heroes or even saviours, capable of greatness, of transcendence.”

Good leaders are anchored in the possible, but bad leaders are enamoured with the impossible. And that can appeal to followers – “the ultimate sales pitch,” she calls it – particularly when, as we are often seeing in the political realm, those folks are angry or alienated, feeling they have been dismissed or demeaned. The appeal also finds fertile soil in contexts that feel damaged or unstable – that could or should be improved.

In the second phase, those followers join in. “There is no leadership without followership,” she stresses, “and no bad leaders without bad followers.” No single individual, no matter how powerful, can do the work alone. They need not just a team but a tribe – not a few people but many people.

Some followers are enablers, even encouraging their leader to persist in destructive behaviours. But she acknowledges that some followers of bad leaders are largely or even entirely unwitting, following out of ignorance rather than enthusiasm. Some followers believe they have no choice or are in denial. At Volkswagen, some engineers and technicians knew they were engaging in wrongdoing by bypassing emission standards, but had good jobs and other incentives to keep their head down and obey.

While in those first two phases it might not be perfectly obvious the leadership is ineffective or unethical, at some point, which she calls phase three, it becomes unmistakable. If the bad leadership is to be stopped or slowed, it is clear that it is past time to act. “If bad leadership is easiest to uproot in the early stages, why don’t we uproot it sooner than later?” she asks. “Well, if humankind knew the answer to this question, humankind would have spared itself a lot of grief.” The leader is operating on full throttle at this point and there are many red flags. Followers are likely to become complicit in the wrongdoing.

In phase four leaders and their followers expand their commitment to being bad. “Bad has become worse, and worse has become entrenched,” she writes. You can’t count on bad leaders backtracking, reversing their course. “Can you imagine Martin Winterkorn, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Elizabeth Holmes or Xi Jinping waking up one morning after many years of being bad and deciding to change their ways? Of course not. To the contrary. In each case, over time the leader’s commitment to being bad – their identification with the character they created – became stronger.” It’s possible to go from worse to worse, as with Hitler.

There is also at this point a resistance to intrusion from the outside. It becomes extremely costly, if not impossible, to quell the bad leadership-followership ecosystem. In a sense, they are sealed off. But change can happen. A whistle-blower or various people within might act. A regulator, investigative reporter or competitor might trigger change. Or some outside event, like a natural disaster, can transform the situation.

That’s not a cheery story. Acting early can be fruitful, even if painful. But when bad leadership descends to worse, there is no clear-cut solution in an imperfect world. “Still, it helps to know that some of the time wrongs are righted. And that some of the time wrongs are righted because we right them,” she says.


  • Consultant Lolly Daskal warns leaders not to contribute to false urgency in their workplace, which can lead to stress and burnout. Be alert to the fact a significant portion of what we perceive as urgency is a whirlwind of activity that often leads to little progress, and thus false urgency.
  • As political polarization seemingly becomes more intense, consultants Ron Carucci and Caroline Mehl note leaders will have to be mindful tensions don’t get out of hand in their workplace. They point to General Mills, which created a release valve with its Courageous Conversations Series: Employees gather in groups to discuss issues after hearing from external experts on a difficult subject – five or six experts, to avoid a binary framework.
  • Atomic Habits author James Clear says you should do things for your own satisfaction, considering praise from others a bonus: “If you don’t work for their validation in the first place, you won’t need it to feel satisfied once it’s done.”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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