When it comes to leadership, I am an avid student who tries to learn more about it in whatever form those lessons present themselves. While books are a valuable source of learning on the subject, observing real life examples of leadership presents a great series of lessons about its art. Leadership as an art has to do with the effective practice of leadership principles, which as we know is much more challenging than the mere digestion of theoretical knowledge about what good leadership entails. The best leaders I have encountered are the ones who may or may not have a theoretical underpinning to their leadership, but they understand it at an intrinsic level, and know how to deal with people, motivate others to achieve a common purpose, and do the other things that are recognised as being hallmarks of great leadership.
Whether they have come to embody that artfulness through instinct, their own learning or lived experience, I must admit that sometimes I find it difficult to get at the heart of what these great leaders do so effectively and effortlessly, and learn from their example. Elegance in leadership is much like beauty, in that it is hard to define, let alone dissect, and when we try to pull it apart for our own purposes, the risk is that we distort, and even devalue, the source of that learning. Perhaps this in part explains why I often seek to gain clarity around what effective leadership entails by observing the examples of bad leaders and other dubious role models.
Unfortunately, we don’t have to venture far to find examples of bad leadership, and I am sure that many of you reading this can easily bring to mind a person who somehow occupied a leadership position, without really having a clue about what is involved in effective leadership. Perhaps they mistreated people, cultivated an adversarial or political environment in the workplace, or took credit for work that others did. Undoubtedly, at the core of bad leadership is suspect character, but in many of these examples, I don’t see people who intentionally set out to make enemies, or tear at the fabric of the organisations that they control. In many ways this happens by default, either because these people are lazy in not having taken active steps to learn about leadership, or they have a fixed mindset that doesn’t lend itself to personal growth and self-awareness that are crucial ingredients for effective leadership.
Perhaps the most significant finding from my PhD study was that the enemy of effective leadership is EGO. At some level, bad leaders have ego problems that manifest in a variety of ways, whether it is the ivory tower syndrome (I am better than those I lead), not being open to the input of their people (I know more than the people I lead) or practicing an authoritative management style (you will do what I say because I am your superior). These are just some examples of how a leader’s unchecked ego can wreak havoc on an organisation, and the lives of the people who work within it. There are many others that I intend to address in a book about Conscious Leadership, which in essence is a mode of leadership where the ego is transcended, or at the very least closely guarded so that it doesn’t impede on a leader’s ability to manifest the qualities of spirit for the common good.
In saying all of this, I don’t want to entirely disparage bad leaders, and I do give credence to Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s assertion that the good are half bad, and the bad are half good. Recently, I read a great book titled ‘Winners: And how they succeed’ by Alastair Campbell, who was the chief aide to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In this book, he describes the phenomenal leadership focus that Bill Clinton maintained in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Despite the self-imposed nature of this indiscretion (which not coincidently was a manifestation of the insatiable ego), Clinton’s lesson on leadership focus in the midst of adversity is a valuable one that we could learn from, as of course is the lesson about maintaining appropriate relationships in the workplace!
While it is tempting for our ego to write someone like Bill Clinton off as a person who we can’t learn from because of their flawed behaviour, I think that we should be more judicious in looking for things that we can learn from others, particularly bad leaders, and others like Ben Cousins, who have fallen from grace. When we hear of their stories, or in the case of bad leaders, are directly and negatively impacted by their incompetence, we feel that experience powerfully and it stays with us for some time. Perhaps it does so to teach us something that we can integrate into our own life and take with us into the future to make things better than they were before.