Bad Leadership?

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.   ~John F. Kennedy

US President John F. Kennedy wrote the above quote in a speech he prepared for delivery in Dallas the day of his assassination, November 22, 1963.  He never got to deliver that speech.

As the US is approaching major elections there is a lot of talk in the press and among political commentators on the quality of leadership among elected officials and the political Presidential candidates.  But concerns about the quality of leadership go far beyond the political stage.  Leadership quality has been a hot topic in business circles for many years and recently there has been a landslide of business books devoted to the topic.  In fact, Amazon has an official ranking of business books and eight of the top 20 have leadership in their title.

But just what is leadership quality?  And what do we mean by a “bad” leader?  It is easy to label someone as a bad leader if their style is slightly offensive, or they don’t communicate as often as we would like, or they make decisions that are not always perfect in outcome.  I am concerned about the label of “bad” leader, especially when the academic experts on the subject of leadership can’t even agree on a definition of leadership in the first place.

I think we should rethink how we label leaders.  Here’s my take on the subject.

There are very few really bad leaders.  To me a bad leader is someone who intentionally uses their position, power and influence for their own personal gain without concern for the consequences of their decisions on others.  So, obviously Adolf Hitler was a bad leader.  So is Robert Mugabe and Colonel Gaddafi.  Idi Amin of Uganda was definitely a bad leader, as was Papa Doc Duval of Haiti.  They are (were) in the role to take what they can for themselves at the expense of their nations and others.  I can definitely, and without reservation use the label “bad” leader for them, and others who follow this pattern.

But what about the majority of those in leadership positions who are trying to fulfill their obligations to their company, constituents, and citizens and yet who make mistakes, screw up from time to time, make a few wrong decisions?  I don’t consider them “bad” leaders.  My term would be “incomplete” leaders.

There are very few really great leaders who get it right all the time and who stand out as being worthy of admiration and emulation.  Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Churchill, Roosevelt,  Abraham Lincoln, Jack Welch, Alan Mulally (current CEO of Ford); all are labeled great leaders by many of us.

So that leaves the majority of us who find ourselves, by choice or circumstances, in positions of leadership.  We are not bad leaders, and we are definitely not great or perfect.  We are merely incomplete, yet with the potential to learn to recognize and improve on our faults, skills and knowledge gaps.

Openness to learn is the real leadership skill

The great thing about those in leadership roles is that the vast majority are open to learning in order to improve.  For the past 30 years I have coached and consulted CEOs and other business leaders and I truly admire how hard they work to learn and improve their leadership skills. And the non-stop demands of the job of CEO or business leader gives them very little time for study.  Much of their additional learning is done while others are sleeping or at the bars!  Most read voraciously, they seek ideas and insights from others, they question themselves, they run scenarios in their heads about every upcoming decision.  Most leaders are learning machines!  It’s the only way to improve.

If you think you are finished, you are!

So if you are looking for a leader to support and there isn’t a Gandhi or Alan Mulally around, then find the person who displays the greatest appetite for personal and professional learning.  They might be “incomplete” now, but I can assure you they are the ones who will improve the most and are firmly on the road to being a great leader.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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