Which is worse . . .?

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.  -Martin Luther King

For a long time I didn’t pay much attention to history.  Guess I was too focused on the future!  But after several decades of consulting on strategy execution and more importantly, observing those in positions of leadership, it has become very clear that there are many leadership lessons contained in history.

Since I am working with a company facing significant business and political challenges at the moment, the issue of leadership is fresh on my mind.

So here’s the question. Which is worse, a bad leader or no leader at all?

It’s obvious that a bad leader can destroy not only the future prospects of a company (or nation), but also the culture and morale of people.  For bad leadership of a nation, we don’t have to go to history, we have a current example in Robert Mugabe, self-declared Leader-for-Life of the African nation of Zimbabwe. And of course, Adolf Hitler is a recent historical example. Lehman Brothers had the misfortune of having Richard Fuld as its Chief Executive and “Wall Street Maven” and he took them from proud global bank to bankruptcy in record time. Like it or not, at these levels of political and organisational power, bad decisions equal bad leadership, with negative consequences all around.

So, is bad leadership worse than no leadership at all?

There is a great fear within organisations and nations that not having a visible leader can quickly lead to anarchy and chaos.  The family business that falls apart when the founder and patriarch dies due to the infighting of the siblings. The country that descends into civil war when a leader is disposed or assassinated. In many cases we follow the motto of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” as the rationale for supporting and propping up a bad leader.  General Noriega and Saddam Hussein are excellent examples of bad leaders receiving substantial support in cash and arms to keep them in place.

But I have another point of view about “lack of a leader”.  In many situations I have observed, at least in business, when leadership is needed, those within who have commitment, vision and courage tend to step up.  They see the need in the company (or the country) and can no longer sit by and watch the situation flounder or deteriorate.  They may not be the perfect leader (and who is?) but they have the courage, commitment and a plan to positively move forward.  Just as nature abhors a vacuum, organisations and nations require leadership and someone will step up.

The more important question is, will we support and work with those who step up to positions of leadership?

Tight Lines . . .

How do you see the role of leadership?  What has happened when there was a lack of leadership in your organisation?  Let’s keep talking about leadership and courage; we need both now more than ever!

John R Childress


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 john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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