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Why Do We Put up with Bad Leaders?

Because I consult regularly with complex organizations, I get an inside look at the impact of good leadership and bad leadership. And I get a chance to talk with many who have worked with bad leaders and have subsequently left the organization. You get a lot of perspective and truth from these people when they no longer fear losing a promotion (or a paycheck).

In general, we tend to tolerate bad leadership. But why?

Banks and Ledbetter have been studying great leaders for some time. In their book Reviewing Leadership they mention five reasons why we tend to tolerate bad or ineffective leaders at the top of an organization.

1. It is too difficult to unseat a bad leader.

Sometimes it just takes too much time and energy. This is especially true in organizations where the leader started the organization (first CEO, founding pastor, etc.). Regardless of their tenure, the very fact that they are at the top makes it difficult to remove them. In business this is less difficult because usually boards or shareholder interests can affect the process. Though it is hard to work from the “bottom up” to get a leader removed, a top-down decision can bring swift changes.

In a church or nonprofit, however, the founding leader has usually recruited the board, and many are close friends. Faults, failures and character flaws are readily overlooked, especially if the organization is “successful” by growing the numbers and increasing the budget. No one wants to lose relational capital, so no one speaks up.

2. Not enough support to challenge them.

No one wants to challenge a rogue leader alone, especially if they have less power in the organization. I have spoken with many such leaders who wanted to challenge a senior leader’s poor performance, awful decision-making or questionable character. Each was afraid to go it alone. Yet they feared soliciting help because they did not want to appear eager to create a mutiny.

You really need a small group of honest, trusted peers to come together and name the truth about the bad leader. But do not expect the board or other senior staff to be receptive. Without clear, compelling reasons for such a challenge, it will be difficult. And even then, they might be unwilling to hear such truth. It is simply assumed you are complaining, or do not share the vision, or are disrespectful, or are being too critical. Nonprofit boards tend to be very protective of senior leaders and tend to turn a blind eye.

3. Overthrowing them is risky.

I have witnessed many occasions in business and in the church where staff members were fired, “encouraged” to take early retirement or offered a generous severance package because they confronted reality. Bad leaders tend to shoot the messenger when they don’t like the news. Dare to talk about what you see and you become an “at-risk” employee. Soon you either get pushed out or bought out. As a result, others learn to put up with the organizational dysfunction and resultant leadership problems to protect their jobs—or they simply leave quietly.

To protect himself from such a dilemma, a friend of mine once quipped, “I made it a point to always have a year’s salary in the bank, so if necessary I could tell my boss to go …”—well, you can fill in the rest.

4. There are more important issues to address.

A bad leader is a big problem. But there are often bigger problems. An impending financial crisis requires laser-like focus. Or you are completing a major initiative (a product launch, building a new facility, a capital campaign). There is no need to put the organization in danger by dumping the leader. He/she has caused enough problems, so ride it out for now and then focus on the leadership transition.

5. They are not so bad after all (at least we know their faults).

The conventional wisdom sounds something like this: “At least we know what we get with Catherine. She might be arrogant and pushy, but at least revenues are increasing and she gets the job done.” In the short run, this wisdom seems necessary. But it simply delays the inevitable and sets you up for a real crisis.

So what can you do? There is only one answer that will solve your problem quickly.

If you cannot ride it out or effect some meaningful change, just leave. Maybe many will follow your example and—finally—other leaders will take notice. Let people know why you left, and move forward with your life. Refuse to let the status quo rule your day.

And either find a good leader to work with, or become one. Don’t settle for less.  

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Bill served at the Willow Creek Church & Association where he developed leadership strategies and training events for over 2500 volunteer leaders. In addition, Bill launched and led the Group Life initiative, creating tools and resources for leaders in 13,000 churches on six continents, representing over 95 denominations in over 30 countries.