The Insular Leader

It is no secret that I have a deep interest in leadership and the types of behaviors that promote or prevent positive outcomes in the organizational domain. This fascination, having been born out of my own experiences as “follower” and leader, has made me relentless in understanding the attractiveness of bad leaders to those who seek to be led. Good leadership and its diabolical twin (bad leadership) can be traced back to Biblical stories, that have enthralled us. Good is pitted against evil and many of us root for the outcome where the darkness accedes to the light.

Retrieved from Google Images, December 21, 2013

I am also interested in those who are led. The question of what they deem to be good and bad leadership is purely subjective. If you were to ask someone to suggest words that would describe a bad leader, you would expect to hear a number of descriptors including: uncaring, detached, uninspiring, psychotic, mean-spirited as well as clueless. On the flip side, good leaders are said to be inspirational. Other descriptors include: driven, team-oriented, trainer and coach, ethical, accountable and trustworthy. There is something amiss if we continue to court, hire and retain those leaders who are unable to inspire those whom they lead, thus contributing to the malaise with which workers perform their duties.

Something is amiss as well, if those who are being led, continue to sacrifice themselves at the altar of preservation of self, because they have become paralyzed by fear. The term going through the motions aptly describes a number of relationships that exist. Instead of rocking the boat, the recipients of bad leadership, continue the routine for years and years until they are able to “escape”. In this case, it would not be absurd to label such a group as “bad followers”.

Amazingly, many of us appreciate the tenets of good leadership. We can almost predict with some degree of certainty, the kinds of attitudes that will provoke eager participation in the established work models or the shirking of responsibilities. Discontented workers will congregate and lambast their leaders lack of that special something and may never dare mount resistance for fear of what that leader may do. In the organization, the ties that bind are economically related. People’s obligations and the need to remain gainfully employed, may be the answer to why so many of us remain with bad leaders. To lose the means of an income, especially in today’s competitive environment is a matter of survival.

My research has uncovered the phrase, insular leader. To help in defining the term, think of an island. It is surrounded by water. In essence it “stands alone”.  The term when applied to leaders offers up a menu of water cooler tales of the leader who does not listen, a law unto himself and the leader who sees nothing wrong with the decisions he/she has made that has brought little or no benefit to the enterprise. Insular leaders it would appear do not countenance dissent and are willing to cauterize attempts to alter the course of action even if all signs point to a disastrous outcome. This cloudy vision contributes to the failure of businesses as the talent and creativity of a good team become restricted.

Admittedly, in some cultures, the insular leader is able to reap success (for a time) primarily because this type of leadership is the norm. Employees are willing to accept the behaviors of insular leaders as they have little or no exposure to an alternative style. This can also be observed in the relationship between the political directorate and its citizens, where there is an acceptance of “bad governance”.  As researchers we must be mindful that cultural practices and expectations play a huge role in how citizens/employees view the effectiveness of a leader. This is where the western ideals appear to fall in stark contrast with eastern ideologies and norms. As part of the discussion, the effectiveness of a leader will have to be reviewed using scales that address the outcome that is satisfactory to many than the few that is impacted. There are many real life examples spanning businesses to state leadership that provide rich data on the impact of insular leaders (bad leaders) on the organization and countries. Research needs to uncover the following: Did they succeed in the initial stage? What were the causative agents of their success? What were the defining moments associated with leadership collapse?

Lipman-Bluman (2005), articulated a number of characteristics that are identifiers in contextualizing bad leaders. The table below captures her thoughts.

 Destructive Behaviors  Toxic Qualities
Leaving followers worse off Lack of integrity
Violating human rights Insatiable ambition
Feeding followers’ illusions; creating dependence Enormous egos
Playing to the basest fears and needs of followers Arrogance
Stifling criticism; enforcing compliance Amorality (unable to discern right from wrong)
Misleading followers Avarice (greed)
Subverting ethical organizational structures and processes Reckless disregard for the costs of their actions
Engaging in unethical, illegal, and criminal acts Cowardice (won’t make tough choices)
Building totalitarian regimes Failure to understand problems
Failing to nurture followers, including successors Incompetent in key leadership situations
Setting constituents against one another
Encouraging followers to hate or destroy others
Identifying scapegoats
Making themselves indispensable
Ignoring or promoting incompetence, cronyism, and corruption

SOURCE: Adapted from Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). The allure of toxic leaders: Why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians- and how we survive them. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp.19-23.

Understanding the attraction intelligent beings have towards incompetent and morally challenged leaders demand continuous assessment. There is no easy response but we do have a wealth of historical data that should continue to herald new discoveries about leadership.

Copyright Suzette Henry Campbell 2013




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