A Publication of WTVP

To truly be a great leader, you must learn to follow.

A lot of ink is spilled every year trying to analyze what makes a good leader. On which side of the bed does Steve Jobs sleep? How many cups of coffee did Jack Welch drink every day? How would Jesus run your company if he was the CEO? Undoubtedly, the pages of the issue you hold in your hands are chock-full of valuable leadership insights. Relatively little is written about bad leaders, though, and the lessons learned from bad leadership can be just as valuable as those learned from good leadership.

You might be wondering if the phrase “bad leader” is an oxymoron. After all, if someone isn’t a good leader, how does that person gain a following in the first place? And without followers, it’s pretty tough to be considered a leader. However, there’s a reason the Dilbert comic strip is so successful—we’ve all had experiences with “leaders” who exhibited really poor leadership. Maybe it’s an excessively micro-managing supervisor, or perhaps it’s a manager who sees any original thinking as a threat to control over his or her little fiefdom. It may be someone who simply doesn’t care anymore.

Bad leadership is toxic to an organization, but the good news is that it can be avoided. There are very few, if any, truly “bad” leaders; the vast majority of leaders exhibit good and bad leadership traits simultaneously. The trick is to make sure the good outweighs the bad, and by a wide margin.

Let’s look at Steve Jobs as an example. Fortune magazine’s CEO of the Decade is a legendary leadership case study. Known as a perfectionist, a micro-manager, a screamer and occasionally a big jerk, Jobs, like all leaders, embodies good leadership characteristics as well as bad.

So with all these flaws, why don’t we look at him as a pretty lousy leader? Because, as mentioned previously, the good outweighs the bad, and by a wide margin. So what is this “good” leadership that overcomes all the qualities that would otherwise make Jobs a wholly insufferable person? He, like all good leaders, holds unwaveringly to a core set of principles that guides him no matter what situation he faces.

For Steve Jobs, these core principles involve a singular focus on making products, whether they be iPhones or Pixar movies, that connect with a consumer on a level no other product ever has. Sure, there were smartphones before the iPhone, but when America thinks “smartphone” these days, it almost always thinks “iPhone.” And yes, there were animated movies before Toy Story, but it singlehandedly changed the industry. Jobs is revered as a leader because he follows his principles of giving consumers the best experience they’ve ever had, no matter what. That is why people follow him—not because he’s a sweetheart, but because a singular, focused vision is inspiring to people, and they’ll tolerate a lot of nasty leadership traits just to be a part of it. The good outweighs the bad.

The problem leaders run into all too frequently is that they abandon their guiding principles. Sometimes circumstances get difficult, and a leader who might otherwise possess a lot of positive traits suddenly panics and forgets about any core values he may have had. Alternatively, maybe a leader is able to follow his principles through the tough times and inspire those around him, but when all the hard work pays off and the vision is finally realized, he abandons the values that put him on top of the world in the first place.

Many of us have seen firsthand the ugly results when a leader purports to hold to a set of values that include hard work and maintaining a hunger to achieve and prove the doubters wrong, but when he or she finally reaches the top of the corporate ladder, the hunger subsides and the hard work doesn’t get done, leaving a group of followers resenting this person to whom they had at one time looked for inspiration. Likewise, we’ve also seen firsthand what happens when a leader talks big about the core values of respect and the importance of the team over the individual when the organization is moving along at full speed, yet pulls a 180 when business goes south and alienates followers by robbing them of their dignity and treating them with disdain.

To truly be a great leader, you must learn to follow. You must follow those guiding principles that will sustain you through the good times and the bad times, and you must decide what those principles will be long before you ever encounter the good times or the bad. Most often, when leaders stray from their core beliefs, they end up being thought of as bad leaders, but when leaders holds fast to their values, they will almost always be looked on as strong and effective, even it they have myriad other flaws. iBi