Companies & Industries

From Zimbabwe to the C-Suite


Our responsibilities for addressing bad leadership. It occurs not just in politics, but in the workplace and everyday life

Posted on Political Animals: June 30, 2008 10:27 AM

During the last week the tut-tutting morphed into screaming and yelling. But it was too little too late. Despite all the recent hand-wringing and blame-gaming by many of the world's most powerful and prominent leaders, Zimbabwe's longtime despot, Robert Mugabe, received 85.5 % of the vote in Friday's sham election. So without further ado he went ahead before the weekend was over and had himself sworn in, for the sixth time, as president.

The question now is what can be learned from this experience. What happened in Zimbabwe is not, of course, idiosyncratic. Human history is chock full of examples of bad leaders, even evil leaders, who do what they want when they want in spite of what others think or say.

Let's be clear-eyed then. Let's admit that Mugabe got away with murder. He reminded us, because apparently we still need reminding, that leaders who have power and authority, and who are determined at all costs to keep what they have, can do so. More precisely, they can and they will do so unless and until someone from somewhere, from inside or outside, stops them.

Bad leaders, especially the really bad ones, do not wake up one fine morning, see the light, and on their own volition reform. Not on your life. In fact, history teaches just the opposite. The worse leaders are, and the more deeply embedded they are, the more willing and able they are to defy their enemies and squelch the opposition.

What, then, is to be done? Are we destined, doomed to be bystanders? Are we destined, doomed, even when faced with the worst of the worst, to being ineffectual altogether? Or are there some things that can and should be done, some things that we, as followers, can and should do to stop or, at least, to slow, bad leadership? Recall that though I am talking here about a tyrant, bad leadership in its various guises is ubiquitous.

So the question of what to do is not exactly exogenous. It arises in everyday life, in the workplace and in the market place, as well as in world affairs. Here, then, are some rules to effect, in so far as humanly possible. They can guide all of us who encounter bad leadership, be it in public or private settings, and whether we are participants or simply observers.

Have the punishment fit the crime. Mugabe, for example, could be tried at some point in The Hague, at the international tribunal which has been increasingly empowered by public opinion to consider cases resembling his. Nor should corporate leaders be exempt from this general rule. They too must be held to account for wrongdoing.

Institutionalize checks and balances. Again, this applies not only to the public sector, but also to the private one, in which agents such as boards and shareholder activists are, in fact, being emboldened to take on errant chief executives.

Institutionalize term limits. Whether a large group or a small organization, this is a simple enough device, intended to preclude people in positions of authority from abusing their authority over a long period of time.

Obtain independent information. Never take the party line at face value. The party line is just that, no less and decidedly no more. Those of us lucky enough to be free agents owe it to ourselves and to others as well to take the time and trouble to secure information that is relatively objective, as opposed to subjective.

Find allies and if necessary take collective action. Going out on a limb to take on the powers that be is generally risky, and mostly ineffective. Better to act in concert, than to be a lone ranger.

Act early. The more deeply entrenched the bad leader, the more difficult he, or she, is to uproot. Timing, then, is all. Waiting to spring into action until things trend from bad to worse is a mistake, nearly without exception.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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