Leaders Behaving Badly

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of facilitating a strategic planning session for senior leaders of a national non-profit.  The leaders who were assembled came from all across the country; they were some of the most brilliant minds in their respective fields. Each person had extensive experience in grassroots organizing, public policy analysis, and fundraising. Our session lasted for four hours, and in that time, a lot of wonderful suggestions and feedback were generated.

However, despite the collective wisdom that was in the room, a curious thing happened: on multiple occasions, the executive team dismissed the feedback from the other senior leaders.  In fact, every time a suggestion was made, the executive team responded that the comments ignored the “very practical, day-to-day business realities of running a non-profit.”

After the session, several people approached me and shared their frustrations. They said that they felt ignored by the senior leadership and were questioning their involvement with the organization.  In a word, this was problematic. This type of organizational malaise could only spell trouble for an organization that was in many ways, still at its nascent stage.

For every organization, leadership is a critical issue. Yet, one of the most under-recognized aspects of leadership is the ability of leaders to nurture leadership qualities in others.  Leadership is not just the ability to get others to perform at a high level and follow your organizational mandate; it is also the ability to inspire others to create their own solutions to achieve organizational success. Leadership cannot be tied to one’s personal ego or agenda; it must be wedded to the collective enterprise. We call this idea “collective leadership.”

There are several ways in which you can promote “collective leadership” in your organization. For the purposes of this newsletter, we will offer several best practices. 

1)  Eyes Shut. Ears wide open.  Listen to your colleagues and honor their suggestions.  It is not uncommon in organizations to only solicit feedback from those who have a certain title or pay grade.  I can’t tell you how many times as an employee I had my suggestions dismissed, only to have those same ideas supported later because they were offered by a more senior employee or an external consultant. 

Your colleagues and direct-reports are the “heart” and “soul” of your operation.  They understand your organization at its molecular level.  Give your colleagues the respect to listen to their feedback thoughtfully.  This doesn’t mean that you have to honor each suggestion, but it will create a climate where each employee feels more invested in the organization.

2)  Jump off the cliff.  We don’t mean this literally. In short, encourage your employees to take risks.  Any business or operation will maintain the status-quo if it continues to employ the same ideas it has historically.  Growing your business (or “non-profit”) means being “creative.”  Encourage your employees to take risks and generate innovative solutions to every-day or long-stand problems you may encounter. Otherwise, you may find your organization sliding off of the proverbial “cliff” because of its inability to introduce new ideas in the face of an ever-changing business climate.

3)  Down with the dictatorship!  From our experience, a lot of leaders adopt a leadership style based on traditional concept that is not their own.  They may model themselves after a parent figure, an authoritarian, or some other rigid, inflexible individual, believing that those characteristics exude strength, confidence, and intelligence.

Unfortunately, dictatorships don’t work in the modern business world.  While it is necessary to be decisive at critical times, that approach should be balanced with a mindful and attentive flair: one that gives due consideration to the input and opinions of those whose success directly impacts the organization. And truthfully, we have yet to encounter any organization where the opinions of stakeholders – at every level – haven’t been tantamount to overall profitability.


Your organization will only grow to the extent that your leaders grow. In order for leaders to grow, they must adopt a more dynamic and expansive definition of leadership.  As you assess your organizational culture, ask yourself: Are our leaders simply expecting others to follow their mandates, or are they cultivating leaders in every workgroup, unit, and department within the business?  This is the difference between leaders becoming energizers, and leaders behaving badly.