Are Followers Responsible for Bad Leaders?


I’m taking a blogging break this week, and will be reprising some posts from days gone by. This one is from January, 2009. What do you think? Do we have responsibility for bad leaders?

Peter Block, one of my favorite writers/speakers, writes about how followers create leaders. Our initial reaction to this might be, “How can I, as a follower, possibly have any responsibility for a leader who is irresponsible, immoral or unethical?”. Let’s consider this.

In the public arena, we vote for our leaders (this may provide the mose obvious connection to our responsibility for bad leadership):

In this case, we might ignore bad past behavior before we cast our vote. We may be snowed by the public relations machine that “markets” a poor leader. We might simply vote without doing our homework first.

Worse yet, we may not vote for anyone. Complacency has it’s price, up to and including some morally and ethically reprehensible leaders who have been elected to public office.

I think it’s even tougher to consider if we might be responsible for bad leaders in our organizations.

How can followers possibly be responsible for bad leadership in our organizations?

I believe we can claim some personal responsibility for leaders who are “bad”. We tolerate them. We don’t speak up or take action to continue to assure that they don’t continue their bad behavior. Authority and power being what they are, we might fear the retribution that can come from speaking up. We prefer to avoid the risk and continue to do what we’ve always done – remain silent, complaining to others, tolerating.

If that is true, when do we step up to leadership ourselves?

At one point in my career, I worked for a man who was a tyrant, bigot and sexist. I had talked to this man about some of his bad behavior, but to no avail. He was incapable of listening to or accepting my feedback.

I was young and had a lot at stake in my position – I was the major breadwinner in my family and felt the weight of the responsibility to provide for my young children. Yet, the situation became intolerable for myself and my coworkers, and I had concerns that the company could be vulnerable to a lawsuit due to this man.

I confided in a friend at the company and sought her advice. She had a lot of faith and trust in the VP of human resorces (whom she worked for) and suggested I have a conversation with him. The tyrant boss reported directly to this VP. I felt compelled to do something, even if I would suffer personal consequences.

This VP was caring, expressed understanding of the spot I was in, and he listened well. I assumed he talked to others after speaking to me. He ultimately took the tyrant out of a management position at the company (in today’s world, this individual may have been fired).

I didn’t suffer any consequences for speaking up. It took a lot of courage (some may call this stupidity) to report the transgressions of my boss to his boss. And the VP most certainly expressed leadership by realizing that the tyrant could not stay in the position he was in.

I felt responsible, and was called to take action that could have had negative consequences for me.

How have you been responsible? What have you done or not done?

Post to Twitter

Link to original post

Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.

Leave a Reply