No bad leaders
A few tyrants and the rest of us
I like to ask the leaders I coach to describe the leaders they’ve learned from or admired in their careers to date. More often than not, they reply with some version of “Well, I’ve learned more from bad bosses about what I don’t want to be.”
I get it. My fascination with my own bad bosses led me to the work I do today, but in doing that work I’ve come to a different understanding. I no longer think in terms of “good” or “bad” leaders.
Yes, there are those who use their power or position to inflict harm, but I don’t think of them as leaders at all—they are tyrants. Driven by self-interest and greed, their ends always justify their means of manipulation, control and abuse. While they do disproportionate damage to the world around them, I think true tyrants are rare.
Most of the challenging leaders out there are not tyrants, they simply don’t know how to get out of their own way. Maybe they’ve been trained by a tyrant. They’ve certainly been shaped by the systems they operate within, and have been rewarded for playing by the rules of those systems. They may not see any reason to do things differently.* Even if they want to, they probably don’t think they have a choice.
But the choice they do have, that each of us has in every moment, is a simple one:
On the one hand is what comes naturally to us—self-preservation. Defending our position, protecting our ego, maintaining our narrative.
Or we can choose self-reflection. Looking within, seeking insight, deepening our awareness, taking responsibility. This doesn’t come so easy, but it makes all the difference.
Choose one challenge you’re facing right now—a conflict or other conundrum—and ask yourself:
Am I choosing my response or reacting on autopilot? Are my actions having the impact I intend?
How am I part of this problem? What am I doing (or not doing) that is contributing to it? Are my go-to strategies or key attributes showing up as liabilities in this situation?
What if this issue is actually an invitation? What new territory am I being asked to step into? Will accepting this invitation bring me into a more authentic sense of myself, a more powerful way of leading?
If you are doing this level of self-reflection on a regular basis, chances are you aren’t a good leader.
You’re a great one.