With All We Know About Leadership, Bad Bosses Still Proliferate

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

I was recently perusing books related to organizations and workplace issues, and was struck by the number of titles that alluded to problems with people in leadership roles. Anyone who has lunched at a busy restaurant or attended a post-work happy hour has overheard employees complain about their bosses, and I’ve probably contributed to that banter myself at times over the course of my rather long work history. I usually take such “shop talk” with a few grains of salt, since disgruntled employees are frequently victims of their own bad attitudes and lack of desire to work.

Lazy and thoughtless people however, do not write books. While the sheer number of titles is noteworthy, even more striking is the intensity with which dissatisfaction with “bosses” is often expressed. Try this one on for size: How to Work for an Idiot: Survive & Thrive— without Killing Your Boss. Another title was: Nasty Bosses: How to Deal with Them without Stooping to Their Level. Yet another: A Survival Guide for Dealing with Bad Bosses: Dealing with Idiots, Bullies, Back-Stabbers, & Other Managers from Hell. Those of you with a penchant for brevity may appreciate this title: My Boss Sucks.

The Ghost of Frederick Taylor

Such references to bosses with little concern for their subordinates’ feelings reminded me of days gone by. Anyone who has ever studied business in earnest has run across Frederick Taylor’s classic work, Principles of Scientific Management. Published in 1911, it was the foundation of the “command and control” approach to running organizations that was in vogue for a substantial part of the 20th Century. Taylor’s motivational psychology was simple— “all the worker wants is money,” a theory clearly applicable in his day. The employer made the rules and that was that. Apparently Mr. Taylor’s ghost still haunts many modern workplaces, driving those leaders with insensitive, authoritarian, and in some cases, sadistic dispositions.

One reason why these approaches to management are still in evidence is because they do create a sense of order, albeit a somewhat perverted one. The proliferation of bosses who favor this style can draw on the rationalization that attempts to get beyond the “command and control” approach have bred their own disasters in the form of permissiveness and disorder. To the convenience of such bosses, the history of management has provided them with excuses that support their needs to throw their weight around.

The other extreme: Abraham Maslow’s “feel good” model

Most noteworthy in this regard was the popularity of the work of Abraham Maslow, who emphasized that people are driven by a host of higher order needs, including those for freedom, esteem, and unfettered personal growth. Carried to excess by during the 1960s by “progressive” theorists, this outlook led to chaos in both educational and organizational settings. “Individualized programs of instruction” and “open classrooms” clouded the purposes of education, while “sensitivity training” wreaked havoc in business organizations, which were subsequently forced to regroup and focus on their bottom lines. Education still bears the scars of those years in the form of preoccupations with fostering self-esteem rather than making sure that kids can read, think, and do math.

The reality: People are motivated by both freedom and order

The problem with theory-based approaches to just about anything is that they often function in a pendulum-like fashion, leading people to swing from one extreme to another. “Tayloresque” approaches to management legitimized tyranny, while “Maslowesque” approaches celebrated feelings at the expense of results. The truth is that people are motivated by the predictability associated with the proper degree of order, but also by the appropriate level of freedom as to how best to utilize their talents. Believe it or not, effortful success also spurs people on further action— there is nothing more exhilarating than a job well done.

Rather than some set formula, the mix needs adjusted to the needs of the organization, the tasks to be accomplished, and the individuals involved. This is probably why truly stellar leaders are in such short supply— the talent and insight necessary for implementing the optimal approach at the right time is rare indeed. Many of us have fond memories of someone who was concerned enough to push us to perform well, no matter how much we resented the pressure while it was being applied.

The best of both: Transformational leadership and emotional intelligence

There is no question that truly effective leaders need to be strong personalities that convey a clear sense of authority and direction. To get the best results however, they must combine this with an ability to create an emotional connection with those that they lead. Rather than controlling others, they need to “transform them”— influencing them at deeper levels that result in genuine commitment to their goals. Perhaps one of the best expressions of this type of effective leadership is found in Daniel Goleman’s work on “emotional intelligence.”

Individuals high in emotional intelligence, or “EI,” have a good understanding of both themselves and others and can communicate with subordinates on their own terms.  They also tend to be realistic goal setters with good self-regulatory capacities that allow them to achieve incredible results. They embody the authoritative qualities emphasized by Taylor tempered by the capacity for empathy suggested by Maslow. In the proper balance, these two become a formidable combination.

A little humility can go a long way

In addition to the above, the ability to “do the right thing” requires a level of humility that allows one accept one’s own potential for error, seek the counsel of others, and then make the wisest decision possible. Many effective leaders in American history, including Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan among others_ exemplified a willingness to listen to the opinions of others, even when those opinions were different from their initial inclinations. By the way, all three of these men were known to take the additional step of praying— seeking the counsel of God prior to committing to a course of action.

Final note: A knowledge of history characterizes exemplary leadership

One additional element seems to be common among individuals who make effective leaders that produce positive results that endure over long periods of time: A passion for history. This may be one of the keys to their ability to produce the results that so many of them do. A keen awareness and understanding of the past gives one access to a simple, yet important principle— actions have consequences that are not always immediately apparent. 

A good understanding of history requires discipline, but it also fosters its further development. A fascination with the past, coupled with a studious and thorough approach to developing a genuine understanding of its implications can be an invaluable asset. Technical expertise will always be essential to success, but that type of knowledge changes rapidly and is subject to obsolescence. In contrast, a mastery of history conveys perspectives that are enriching and in many ways timeless. Anyone aspiring to success as a leader ought not to take its potentials lightly.

Although I don’t have the scientific evidence to back up such an assertion, my guess would be that many of the bosses referred to in the books cited at the beginning of this commentary would be less avid consumers of history than their more successful counterparts. Anyone wanna bet?