In my 25 years of working in the non-profit world, I’ve seen my share of good and bad leaders. Lately though, perhaps something has been in the water, but Richard and I have witnessed the effects of some really bad leadership.
Notice how I phrased that : “witnessed the effects of…”. That is often what we have to deal with. I’ve had many conversations lately surrounding the topic of how something could be done, and done well, if only the leader would get out of the way.
It’s really sad.
Good employees are considering leaving their positions because the leader is not really leading. In fact, he or she is doing the opposite by killing the spirit of the team. But what I find equally fascinating is that the employees and managers under these leaders are not forthright in confronting the leader.
So, rather than approach the leader with some hard truths, the employees and managers live in their own misery, and this can have some awful side affects. First of all, the work environment becomes toxic. Secondly, since employees are not talking to the leader, they are talking to everyone else, creating gossip, negativity and really just a bad atmosphere in which to work.
It’s a big bowl of toxic soup!
I’m going to tell you a story. I know exactly what it’s like to be that employee who doesn’t confront leadership. For whatever reason, I’m conflict averse. It’s part of who I am. As a young development professional, I would avoid hard things like bad leadership and other things that were confrontational.
Until one day I was hired by a direct-response fundraising company, Domain Group, based in Seattle. The two owners were Richard Perry and Tim Burgess. Here were two men who, in their collective careers, had made a ton of mistakes, both professionally and personally. Those mistakes, along with their intelligence and skills, made them great leaders.
While in the first week in my new job I was assigned to a project with both of them. I could not believe how openly they spoke about their failures and weaknesses. They invited me to call them out if they were not doing what was needed with that specific project. “What? You want me to tell you, the two owners of this company, when you have messed up?” I couldn’t believe it!
Here were two very gifted men who owned one of most successful fundraising agencies in the country telling some new Account Director, me, that I was powerful and they were there to serve me.
For the eleven years in which I worked for Domain Group, these two men led that way – always asking us to confront our fears, to be honest with each other, to be humble, to take risks, to forgive and have grace for one another.
Were they perfect? Far from it. But to be able to witness this type of leadership, day in and day out, allowed me and my colleagues to flourish, grow and become leaders ourselves.
It allowed me not to fear confronting leadership when it needed to be confronted. And, it allowed me to have a clear understanding of what makes a great leader – which is why it really saddens me when I see bad leadership in organizations. I’m not going to go into all the good qualities leaders need to have. Perhaps, Richard can write more on that subject. But, I think you know when you are working with one and when you aren’t.
You can’t control a leader’s behavior. However, you can humbly confront bad leadership. It’s a risk, I know. It’s hard, very hard, to do. But, in the many cases where bad leadership has been confronted, those leaders usually had no idea they were “acting that way”, nor did they realize they were “getting in the way”.
If you’re a leader, I would ask you to take stock of what type of leader you are. Are you allowing your team to flourish by allowing them to make mistakes and taking risks? Are you open about your own mistakes? Do you demonstrate grace to your team?
If you’re an employee or manager and working under bad leadership, are you creating an environment that seeks understanding and communication with that leader? Or, are you helping to create that toxic soup I was talking about?
This stuff is not easy. Believe me, I know this first hand. But this is NOT out of your control. I know you want to think that – I used to all the time. You do have control over your own life and work.
Ultimately, you want to help change the world. If some leader is blocking that or creating an environment that stops you from doing it….YOU can DO something about it.