Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Bad leaders

Korean War Memorial (October 2017)

Harry S. Truman knew what he wanted and he didn't let his military commanders walk all over him. When the celebrated media hound Douglas MacArthur defied him on how to prosecute the Korean War, President Truman fired him on the spot. Despite the risk that he would be seen as petty and vindictive, President Truman didn't hesitate to take an unpopular decision in order to retain his authority over the military, something his successor, General Eisenhower came to appreciate as he left office on his "Military-Industrial Complex" speech.

Leadership is a complex many-splendored coat, and there are many leaders who fail the leadership test. They forget who they are and hat they are supposed to do. Quite often, their failures are a reflection of their weak characters and a deep ignorance of what their organisations are supposed to do. But sometimes their weak leadership is a reflection of their bad character. They are intelligent and well-credentialed, but they are bad people at their core, and incapable of making good decisions. Bad people make bad leaders.

In my very short professional career, I think I have identified a few things that make a leader a bad one. Hubris, obviously is up there with the worst traits. Jealousy is its handmaid. But there is nothing as bad as cowardice - the fear of making a bad decision and, therefore, no decision is made. With cowardice comes blame-shifting - a refusal to take responsibility for anything bad. Nothing demoralises an organisation so much as a cowardly leader who blames his underlings for the bad outcomes of his cowardice.

Harry Truman wasn't afraid to fire a popular war hero. President Truman's military career had not been a stellar one but he didn't let fear of the unknown when he became Commander-in-Chief from making hard calls when he had to. He ordered the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He saw the awesome power of The Bomb. He knew that if he left his commanders to make decisions about the deployment and use of nuclear bombs, he would lose not just his country, but the world. So when Gen. MacArthur came up with the harebrained idea to bomb the North Koreans and their Chinese allies into capitulation using nuclear bombs, and refused to listen to his Commander-in-Chief when he was ordered not to advance beyond the Yalu River, Truman had no choice but to can his ass.

Many leaders are faced with less fraught decisions that cowardice prevents them from making, quite often because they are afraid of being seen as cohering to a moral, ethical or practical line. Every time they capitulate to bullies, they raise the stakes for when they will be faced with truly difficult decisions and find themselves without allies when they fail to make the right decision. In my opinion, it is better to make a wrong decision - and learn from it - than cowardly refuse to make a decision at all and have it made for you by lesser men. It is quite difficult to work for bad leaders. You spend part of your day wishing that they got fired or something.

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