On any given day we can pick up a newspaper, read an email or listen to news about what leaders are doing well or not so well. It seems that we hear more about leader’s missteps than successes. Lately, countries, companies, and currencies have fallen based on a lack of strong and constructive leadership. We’ve seen leaders derailing too often.
As leadership became important with the earliest formation of countries and companies, so it is today. Business groups cannot succeed without leaders. That’s why we pay attention to what leaders are doing. Leaders make a difference in our lives.
The Globe Project, a group of scientists from 62 countries, defined leadership as: “…the ability of an individual to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members” (House, 2004).
But what makes the person able to influence, to motivate and to mobilize others? “It appears that neither traits nor situational attributes alone are sufficient to explain leader behavior and effectiveness. It is the interaction between traits and situations that counts” (Hackman and Wageman, 2007).” In addition to this interaction, the outcomes a leader produces makes a difference. Constructive traits, situations that play to a leader’s strengths and positive outcomes are the Trifecta of leadership.
The Leaders We Most Want to Follow
To better understand different types of leaders, a model of leadership is illustrated in the diagram below. It shows three types of leadership and is a spectrum ranging from great leadership to toxic leadership.
Consider those leaders we would call great, those we think are absent or Teflon-like, and toxic leaders we would run from and choose not to follow.
Great leaders are the ones that we flock to. These are leaders who set superordinate goals, which we aspire to achieve and who we know we can trust because they are predictable and stable. These leaders are likely the ones who reach out and connect with us. They show that they value our opinion and career because they ask about our aspirations, our goals, they listen and support us. In business, they promote situations where we collectively strive to come up with new ideas to innovate, where customers know they are valued, customer’s needs are met and their problems solved. Their greatness is evident by the outcomes produced; followers are very engaged and will promote the organization with successful results (Best Companies Group, 2011).
Great leaders tend to produce results which have a long shelf life. Their followers are very loyal, are confident in the leader and a spirit of joint cooperation toward goals is evident. These leaders may change a culture and produce change written about in history books. We can think of Gandhi, Jefferson, and Steve Jobs when we think of greatness. They are leaders known for seizing the moment, who not only see situations clearly but have a vision of the future. Their outcomes are transcendent across generations.
Absentee leaders tend to be laissez faire and are like Teflon. They tend not to stick out their necks or face a tough situation unless they have too. They are Teflon because they brush off decisions rather than make them. The absentee leader often hides behind a shut door, avoids tough choices and doesn’t ruffle feathers. They chose not to “seize the moment” or accurately perceive situations where they could make a difference. They tend to lack focus, lack ability to build common goals and build an espirit de corps. You know you have one of these leaders when someone asks about them and the response is, “They are ok, they leave me alone”. If people are competent this type of leader is not necessarily a subtractor from their performance, but an absentee leader will not gather a large group of followers. Their followers will be fickle, not have the unity to build great products, processes, communities or countries. They often derail because they lose talent and don’t produce results.
Toxic leaders are ones who can bring down an organization or a country and are predictable for their negative qualities.
A leader on this spectrum may garner followers, but the question should be posed, to what ends? Lipman-Blumen (2005) views toxic leaders as:
- Ones who do more harm than good to followers
- Violate basic human rights of their own supporters
- Feed illusions to their followers that play on the followers fears and needs
- Mislead followers with lies
- Stifle criticism of themselves
- Engage in unethical, illegal and criminal acts
- Cling to power
- Scapegoat others
- Ignore or promote incompetence, cronyism and corruption
Some examples (Bass, 2004) of toxic leaders are those full of narcissism, one unfortunate, but all too common, executive flaw. Chainsaw Al Dunlap was known to say he could cure any dying business. He tried to cure Sunbeam when he was appointed the CEO in 1996. He laid off 60% of the workforce. Next he blamed his predecessors for not laying off people before he did and then he ran the company into bankruptcy.
When reflecting on the Arab Spring, ongoing world crisis and rebellions we’ve seen many leaders who are toxic leaders, narcissists, abusive and corrupt. Ironically, these leaders can mobilize a significantly large group of followers who are large enough to be armies that can overrun cities and countries. The extreme negative nature of a toxic leader will lead to their derailment.
Many consultants and consulting firms have written about derailers. The word derailer even evokes a powerful and destructive image, that of a train coming off the tracks. When it’s moving fast the damage can be immense in the loss of life or property. The word, when associated with leadership, connotes a leader whose career has come off “the tracks”. According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) a derailer is not solely a weakness. Rather a derailer must be improved if a leader can realize their potential. A leader with significant derailers will impact the effectiveness of an organization and their relationship with followers. Some noted derailers from CCL include:
- Inability to change or adapt during a transition or to a new boss
- Poor interpersonal relationships with characteristics of: insensitivity, manipulation, being critical, self-isolating, demanding, authoritarian, aloof,
- Failure to build and lead a team, staff the team, poor team leader skills, lack of team performance (think of leaders who fail to produce)
- Failure to meet business objectives; ( think of the many leaders who didn’t make their numbers)
Development Dimensions International (DDI) list of derailers include being: impulsive, arrogant, micromanaging, self-promoting, volatile, defensive, lack of self awareness and social awareness, defensive and suspicious. Some of these words associated with derailers bring to mind an explosive or unstable leader while others bring the image of a leader who is “asleep at the switch”.
These leaders don’t bring a constructive approach to a situation. They are flawed in their traits and can’t keep followers or sustain progress to have outcomes that are noteworthy. We can surmise that leaders with significant derailers are ones who have difficulty having the social awareness, personal traits and ability to “read the situation” so they can choose to adjust quickly enough to create strong business outcomes and to maintain their followers over time.
If a leader is toxic or has significant derailers’ ongoing success as a leader, is not possible.
As Forest Gump’s mother said, “Life is a box of chocolates; you never know what you will get”. Our world is influenced by the leaders in our lives. If we choose to follow a leader, a great or even constructive one, we are happy with the chocolate we picked. When the leader turns on us, then the chocolate can quickly become bitter. Therein lies the intrigue about leaders and why they are so important to us.