Some good. Some not so good. Too many truly awful.

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”

— Alexander the Great

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

— John F. Kennedy

“The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.”

— Ray Kroc

“Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.”

— John D. Rockefeller

“Without initiative, leaders are simply workers in leadership positions.”

— Bo Bennett

”Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”

— Peter Drucker

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

— Laurence J. Peter

“People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.”

— John C. Maxwell

“Absolute identity with one’s cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership.”

— Woodrow Wilson

The simple answer is that we are herd animals, tribal flavor. A strong need for leadership is built into our human nature. My question then is why we seem to have so many truly bad leaders. Especially today, it seems. How do such human disasters ever achieve a leadership position? Are we-the-people at fault, or is it something much deeper?

Who makes people into leaders? And what exactly is a leader in practice?

Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence Habits, defines leadership by what it isn’t: “What Makes A Leader?”:

  • Leadership has nothing to do with seniority or one’s position in the hierarchy of a company.
  • Leadership has nothing to do with titles.
  • Leadership has nothing to do with personal attributes.
  • Leadership isn’t management.

A bit helpful I guess, but not much better than Peter Drucker, management guru, who offers: “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” No followers, not a leader, I guess.

Defining “to lead

Turns out that the definition of “lead” in the context of “leadership” is a not at all obvious. Dictionary definitions tend to focus on “control”, “responsibility”, “guide”, “show the way”. A little closer to the mark in my view are “persuade” and “influence”. Then there are the ones like “command”, “direct”, “govern”, “head”, “manage”, “preside over”, and “supervise”.

Leading is different from managing, control, and command, which reflect power and position. True leading, to me at least, seems to involve influencing, persuading, guiding, as actions. Responses from followers are largely or completely voluntary, flowing from the true-leader’s vision, example, rationale, communication, beliefs, commitment, and such.

This is not to say that people in positions of power, people who command or manage, can’t be considered or labelled as leaders. What such “leaders” do however is very different from what I see as the essence of true “leadership”. These “leaders” do not have followers, but mainly subordinates, workers, employees, and even grunts if you can imagine such a thing.

True leaders do not say “obey!” (with an implicit “or else”). Commanders, dictators, tyrants, bosses, and the like, do say “obey (or else)” because they have the “or else” power. True leaders do not need such power.

Followers of true leaders follow because they are inspired, persuaded, influenced, or challenged. They follow willingly, even eagerly. So perhaps Drucker had it right after all if he defined followers in this manner.

Individuals designated or in a position as leaders are not leaders in this sense. They command and control. Leaders in this post – true leaders – are those who attract and motivate followers by largely or completely voluntary ways.

Thomas Paine was an English-born American Founding Father, political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. He authored Common Sense, which turns out to be rather uncommon in practice.
Thomas Paine was an English-born American Founding Father, political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. He authored Common Sense, which turns out to be rather uncommon in practice.

What is meant by “truly bad leaders” in this post?

Leaders of the command and control variety can certainly be as bad as any of the attract-and-motivate-by-voluntary-means types of leaders. Napoleon was a bad tyrant despite being, for a time at least, an effective military leader. Hitler and Mao, pretty much the same.

Who are examples of leaders who had mostly voluntary followers? Surely Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and probably also Winston Churchill and George Washington. Washington was a military commander who inspired his ragged army of volunteers to achieve decisive victory over the greatest empire of the day.

Incompetent leadership.
Western Rome–and every empire, if we look closely–was critically dependent on competent leadership when faced with existential threats to the Empire’s cohesion. We can cite Marcus Aurelius and Constantine as two examples [of competent leadership] of many. … When the leadership was weak and/or incompetent, defeats and failures piled up and things fell apart.”

As I have noted in several posts (see here for example) dealing with leadership issues, most managers have some degree of leadership involved in their overall role. The majority tend toward the managing end of this role spectrum, but almost every manager needs some true leadership abilities and performance. Leadership development is a huge business – around $60 billion annually by some estimates.

So this post is aimed at the leadership components of nearly everyone who is in a management, supervisory, or executive position, and not just “pure” leaders.

True leaders do not need power

This point is so important that it bears repeating. People are not “leaders” because they have power to command or otherwise force obedience. Just calling them “leaders” does not make them truly so.

True leaders are people who can persuade others to follow them in their (the leader’s) endeavors. Persuade is the keyword here. Military leaders lead by the power of command. Many organizational leaders do the same: “… do what I say, or else”. Government leaders lead by means of their positions of power. Others lead through control of resources.

The essence of true leading is getting others to do what you want – willingly, with trust in you and your vision.

Many people, however, want to be led, to be told what to do. They are willing followers for any number of personal reasons. Leaders almost by definition are decision-makers. So many people it seems prefer not to make decisions of consequence – being responsible for outcomes, good and bad – possibly fearing personal failure as a result. They are willing followers of even the worst of commanders and bosses.

Willingness to follow a person in charge does not make that person a true leader. In this case, “willingness” is usually little more than obedience, submission.

Again, people follow a true leader because they are inspired, persuaded, influenced, or challenged. They willingly, even eagerly, follow. To me, such a distinction is critical.

For this reason, I’ll use “leader-commanders” to refer to those who demand-with-an-implied-“or-else” the obedience or submission of their subjects and subordinates.

Steve Jobs, late cofounder of Apple and amazing visionary. Also a fierce tyrant as CEO, according to some ex-Apple engineers I met years ago. Definitely a leader and commander.
Steve Jobs, late cofounder of Apple and amazing visionary. Also a fierce tyrant as CEO, according to some ex-Apple engineers I met years ago. Definitely a leader and commander.

Leader-commanders require power

Leadership of any kind requires power over others. In true-leadership, the power is given by others who follow. In command-leadership, power is forced by means of control over resources, employment, belonging, positions, rewards, and other things that people value highly.

Bad leader-commanders have destroyed countries, and even empires. Napoleon destroyed France. Nero and others like him destroyed the Western Roman Empire. Hitler destroyed Germany. Long list of failed leaders, but mostly “failed” in outcomes for the people being led, not always for the commanders themselves.

Sometimes power is forced upon them, as George Washington seems to have experienced. Washington was chosen by a tiny group of patriots who valued highly the freedom to govern and to tax themselves. He inspired followers who willingly became his troops, risking their lives for what he believed and acted upon. He was a true-leader as well as a leader-commander, exceptional in both.

More often, it seems, leader-commanders are seekers of power. They have an insatiable need or desire for power over as many subjects and subordinates as they can arrange. Their “followers” are mostly those coerced or painfully forced.

The destructive deficiencies of human nature, such as greed, desire for power, hatred, arrogance, resentment, and an unlimited supply of self-delusion, continue to plague our world. It seems that only the most power-hungry psychopaths and sociopaths rise to the highest levels of government, business, religion, education, and finance. These, in turn, almost guarantee failure at some point.

Psychopaths and sociopaths? How many could there possibly be?

Thinking of leader-commanders as having psychopathic or sociopathic natures or tendencies, surely these types are sufficiently rare that they cannot possibly occupy more than a few power positions. Or so I thought.

Leader-commanders – a significant percentage of our population? Wild guess – maybe 10% to 15%, max – and more likely fewer. Unfortunately, the higher guess seems oddly consistent with the percentage of sociopaths and psychopaths in the general population. From a distant past post of mine (see Related Reading below for link):

“If one makes a great leap and considers ‘corruption’ as being characteristic of sociopathic or psychopathic personalities, then research indicates that 4% of the adult population are sociopaths and 1% are psychopaths. But, just to confuse things, some 5% to 15% are ‘almost psychopaths’. So, for purposes here, it seems that up to 10% of the population might fall into one of these categories. That is, they may be more likely than the main population to be corruptible or corrupted.”

So many corrupted by power, money, high positions, control over masses of peons aka subjects and subordinates? Thinking back a while over the folks in power positions that I have known, maybe this rough estimate is closer to reality than I would have expected or hoped.

Adding in the assumption that most managers and executives have some degree of true leadership abilities and role requirements as well as the primary executive ones, the power-corruptible, leader-commander population would likely be in the 10% to 15% range. Worse yet, if you figure perhaps a one-to-ten manager-to-subordinates ratio on average, you do get a 10%+ potential population of sociopaths and psychopaths in leader-as-commander power positions. A surprise? I guess not.

I find this rather distressing. Perhaps you do also.

Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher, known for his essay "Civil Disobedience" an argument in favor of peaceful disobedience against an unjust state. My kind of true-leader.
Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher, known for his essay “Civil Disobedience” an argument in favor of peaceful disobedience against an unjust state.
My kind of true-leader.

How many of our leader-commanders are strongly true-leaders as well?

Remembering that true-leaders attract willing, eager followers, there is surely some quite good news here. From my own experience with hundreds of such folks, I’d guess that many – perhaps as high as 50%, had at least somewhat visible true-leader qualities and aspirations. They truly wanted their folks to get on board willingly and eagerly, and many were actively trying their best to succeed here.

Followers – willingly and eagerly. That’s what true-leaders attract and retain. 

Unwilling and reluctant followers are what I have called people who go-along-to-get-along. Such people want to belong and to be accepted by true-believer peers more than they want to remain outside or to resist. That’s just who they are. Not bad in themselves, unlike so many of their leader-commanders.

A great number of these unwilling, reluctant followers are themselves subordinate leaders who carry downward the top peoples’ proneness to failure and bad decisions. This is done not from within, by the choice of the subordinate leaders, but from what they are largely forced to do as followers of those above them.

In this respect, it may be more of a wonder that we do not have so many more bad (subordinate-level) leaders. My guess here is that these lower level leaders have some reasonable degree of true-leadership qualities lurking within, and sometimes even causing whatever nastiness is afoot to be mitigated, redirected, or even reversed.

There must be as a result so many more good folks around who have true-leadership as part of their overall roles.

W.E.B. Du Bois, American sociologist, socialist, historian, and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist. Truly a great leader by example who lived his beliefs.
W.E.B. Du Bois, American sociologist, socialist, historian, and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist. Truly a great leader by example who lived his beliefs.

Perhaps the better question is why aren’t there many more bad leaders?

The answer, it seems to me, is that managers who have some degree of leadership required as part of their roles are often providing an effective limit to how bad the truly awful leaders can be, and can generate in others. Somewhat hopeful, yes?

Still, so many leader-commanders remain largely unimpeded by subordinates that our overall leadership picture in the true-leader sense seems pretty dismal. This is just human nature at work, as suggested above. Human nature can’t be changed.

My next question in this case would be to figure out if possible what one might do to mitigate, redirect, or reverse the bad leadership and outcomes that remain out there doing quite terrible things.

My answer: Lead by example

If I can figure out what this actually means in practice, given personally available resources and timeframe, this is where I have come out. So far, anyhow.

This seems to require, as a starting point at least, that I identify what I might be attracted to follow willingly and eagerly should I ever run across such a true-leader. From my ponderings above, this thought seems about right:

Followers follow because they are inspired, persuaded, influenced, or challenged.

What might inspire, persuade, influence, or challenge me? I have never asked myself such a question before, so this will take some serious thought and figuring. Kind of a “physician, heal thyself (Luke 4:23)” challenge, yes?

Inspire:

What really inspires me? A powerful positive vision. Demonstrated courage . Strong commitment. A lifelong desire to help others – wherever and as much as possible, abilities permitting. And of course within the real-world context of today.

How would I identify such a person? Words. Actions. Actions matching and implementing words.

Persuade:

I am not easily persuaded by anyone or anything. It takes a while before my trust reaches a level at which I might be persuaded. Trust like this is so easily lost and extremely hard, or even impossible, to regain.

My first thought here is to see if I can identify any “leaders” out there today who might be able to persuade me to follow and act as they argue. Perhaps I am a bit too cautious and resistant by nature, but I can’t think right now of anyone who might fit.

Influence:

This one is rather like the “persuade” characteristic. I’m not influenced by position or reputation. The idea here I think is to be influenced by example. By a person who walks their talk in a way that might make me want to emulate as best I can and want to.

Challenge:

The vision of my hypothetical true-leader probably has to present both an attractive direction and a worthy goal that might be accepted as a personal challenge. Something to strive for, rather than against. I’m not much in favor of negative (against) kinds of goals.

The challenge would have to be reasonably achievable, not some fantasy or do-good wish. Such a true-leader would have to have generated some serious and significant results in order to be considered.

Do I know anyone who might serve as such a leader for myself? No, I really can’t think of any person of this nature. Well then, how about someone famous who might serve as a role model in this respect? How about Mahatma Gandhi? A truly great human, but not without flaws (like the rest of us humans). A role model for non-great people like myself? Probably too much of a stretch.

Mahatma Gandhi, a great leader by example. But hardly a role model in practice for us non-great humans.
Mahatma Gandhi, a great leader by example. But hardly a role model in practice for us non-great humans.

How does one become a leader-by-example?

Not a great leader, but simply someone who practices their beliefs as strongly, positively, and visibly as possible. No matter what the personal costs or consequences. Without any power to command, but only to be an example for anyone like myself who might be similarly inspired.

Umm …

Without a suitable role model handy, this seems to limit any leader-by-example to oneself. But what if one has no aspirations whatever of leading? Can one do anything helpful, constructive, in this regard without seeking to lead or follow anyone?

I think that such an effort is indeed possible. One might simply believe and act in ways that others may or may not find useful. One might become an example, unintentionally, just by doing one’s own thing.

This would not involve leading or seeking to lead in any respect. It would not necessarily involve even the intention to provide a sort of role model. Such a person would probably not care in the least whether anyone regards them as a role model or useful example.

Where I have come out in all of this pondering

Quite surprisingly and unintentionally, I think that I can see where I might fit in practice: through this blog effort. I started the blog over three years ago as a personal thinking exercise, and also as a platform for online coaching of some kind. COVID pretty much messed up the latter effort, at least for the moment, so I am left with the possibility that the blog posts may provide some useful ideas for others who might actually be in leadership (or follower) positions.

Posts here are pretty much what I did in part during my many years of management consulting and executive coaching. I was an ideas-generator for the majority of my clients. The purpose in offering such ideas was to stimulate a client’s thinking about what they might actually want to try.

Quite often, I would suggest an approach that I knew wouldn’t be accepted, but might serve to give the client a reference point or three to guide their own thinking. A coaching role in effect. This worked pretty well as I recall.

My efforts are clearly not leadership in any respect, but may well be useful to at least a few of those readers who have real leadership demands. I sure do hope so.

Bottom line:

A strong need for leadership is built into our human nature. We have so many truly bad leaders because we have so many “leaders” – perhaps roughly one for every ten followers or subordinates. And one might expect 10% at least of these “leaders” to have psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies and performance somewhere between bad and truly awful.

It appears that there a two main groups of so-called “leaders”. Most are leader-commanders who manage or control by means of power, position, or hierarchical role – force. What I refer to as true-leaders are those who attract and guide willing, eager, voluntary, followers, without coercion. The majority of “leaders” have roles that require some amount of both types of leadership.

True leaders attract followers who they inspire, persuade, influence, or challenge. Mahatma Gandhi was such a true leader. These are unfortunately rare. True leaders who are bad or awful lose followers readily, and hopefully fade away as a result.

A few true leaders lead by example. They attract followers by their powerful beliefs, actions, vision, and commitment. Even leaders having both leader-commander and true-leader roles can be effective as a true-leader if they want to be and are able to be. Most often, however, the leader-commander role dominates.

“The real capabilities in government so far as I can see reside deeply buried in most units. These invisible people are probably the only reason that anything useful ever gets done. Promotions are mostly based on politics, ensuring that those promoted are better politicians than performers, as they float up to the surface, speaking pond-wise.”

“But, as you are aware, it gets worse. Much worse. The reason is ‘corruption’, which is better known as an important part of human nature. Almost everybody is corrupt or corruptible to some degree. The great blessing here is that this human weakness is suppressed, individually or collegially, in the majority. Most of us are fundamentally nice and are not easily corrupted.”

“If one makes a great leap and considers ‘corruption’ as being characteristic of sociopathic or psychopathic personalities, then research indicates that 4% of the adult population are sociopaths and 1% are psychopaths. But, just to confuse things, some 5% to 15% are ‘almost psychopaths’. So, for purposes here, it seems that up to 10% of the population might fall into one of these categories. That is, they may be more likely than the main population to be corruptible or corrupted.”

“The point here, in case you were wondering, is that there are very many people out there who are potentially corruptible. Since leadership and many management positions are filled based more-or-less heavily on ‘political’ concerns, this suggests that senior positions almost everywhere, but particularly in government, have a higher percentage of the potentially-corruptible.”

“In my experience at least, this seems very reasonable, and possibly quite a bit too conservative.”

Institutions Americans trust most and least
  • And last, but most troubling, is an article by Joseph Mercola via The Burning Platform on a new video, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, that features an entirely different sort of leadership: “Leave the World Behind”:

“There’s ample evidence to show that certain groups, organizations and individuals are paving the path for humanity, oftentimes decades in advance, if not longer. Schwab has even admitted as much. During remarks at the May 2022 WEF Summit in Davos he [WEF head Klaus Schwab] told the carefully curated audience:”

“‘The future is not something that just happens. The future is built by us, by a powerful community, as you here in this room.’”