How to Confront Bad Leadership

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.


About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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8 Responses to How to Confront Bad Leadership

  1. Phyllis says:

    Or they fire you. Or they do nothing.

  2. Pauline Rockwood says:

    I very much appeciate this article about how to confront bad leadership. However, I also believe that it is somewhat simplistic and naive to say that you can always deal with leadership in an upfront and forthright manner. I was in a senior management position at which time my direct leader, who also happened to be the President and CEO of the non-profit, was downright corrupt and who stacked the Board of Directors so he’d always be able to control them. I am not one who is afraid of conflict having had a number of senior positions in which I had to learn to deal with conflict. So I spoke with my boss on a number of occasions during which time I tried to be fair and honest without being combative. I was told that I had no right to question authority. So, after many attempts of trying to change things and protect my direct reports, I went to a Chair of our fundraising committee to tell him/her that I was having challenges being allowed to do my job and, therefore, it was difficult to meet his/her fundraising committee objectives. As is often the case, this Chair person was also on the Board of Directors. When my boss, the President and CEO, heard that I had met with the Committee Chair, he presented me with a letter advising me that if I ever did that again, my employment would be terminated. Now having managed employees for years and know what was legally required to terminate someone’s employment, I knew that this was just a scare tactic. But the fact of it was, it also demonstrated just how bad a leader this person was and that, no matter what I did, I wasn’t going to make a difference. So, after being badly abused in this position, I chose to leave of my own accord. To this day, that organization still has this leadership and it is sad to imagine how great a place it could be if they only would wake up and see that they are being held back by one person!

    • Pauline, I think your personal story unfortunately is NOT unique. However, you did all the right things here. You saw a wrong, confronted that wrong and because you can only do so much, decided to take control of the situation and leave. I didn’t say that there was always going to be resolution by confronting bad leadership. However, when someone does confront bad leadership and that leader doesn’t change or they continue the bad behavior, YOU have the choice to decide to get out of that toxic environment. Good for you that you did. You could have stayed and been miserable, but you chose to take control of your life. Yes, its sad that many good organizations who are doing good things have bad leaders that are holding them back. But, at least you did all you could to make a change there. Sometimes that’s not enough. Thanks for reading and commenting, Pauline.


  3. Linda says:

    Like Pauline, I was until very recently in an incredibly dysfunctional and toxic situation. I actually had four managers in a year. The person who hired me was forced out; then the VP who had hired her (and didn’t know fundraising from an eggplant) left to take a new job in another state; then we had an interim (who knew what he was doing but wasn’t even considered for the permanent position, and finally a sinecure. Yes, a political appointment of a non-fundraiser, career bureaucrat who decided that the entire reason of why we were falling short of our campaign goals were two-fold: me and the other major gifts officer. Mind you, we reported to an associate vice president who is another career bureaucrat and we somehow managed to raise money even without a campaign chair, campaign counsel, total participation of the board or of the president. Nonetheless, off with their heads. It was done ham-handedly and with zero warning. Like Pauline, the other MGO and I had spoken truth to power in a very civil and professional manner. Unfortunately, I had a job offer last year which I had turned down in order to stay (misplaced sense of loyalty). So now, I am sitting here with a small severance having left on their terms, not my own, which is humiliating and difficult to explain to future potential employers. BUT, I’m literally detoxing from the horribly chaotic and dysfunctional environment I worked in for two years. Any thoughts about how to deal with all of that?

    • …a bottle of Scotch?. Sorry, you’re story sounds horrific. I’m so sorry you had to go through all that. Like Pauline, I’m glad you are no longer in that crazy environment. Now, that you are “detoxing” now is a good time to figure out what you want to do next. I would reach out to your network of professionals who are in the business and start looking for a stable environment. Build on the good work that you have done and move forward. Hang in there, Linda. Something will open up.

  4. Young NP professional says:

    A good post. I used to work for a terrible Development Director in my first full-time position, and I was very scared of confronting her. In my miserable and confused state, I definitely contributed to the department’s negative gossip, but I am glad that I tried confronting her too. However, it made no difference. She took the criticism very personally and made everything about why I was “attacking” her. I reached out to HR (thank goodness we had a good HR department) and even eventually the CEO (at HR’s urging). But it didn’t help. In fact, the CEO kind of brushed me off and said that the Development Director was probably better than I thought. Last I checked, four employees had left in two years expressly because of her (she only had 2.5 employees at any one time). So the question I’m left with is…why is she still there?! I know this situation happens in many other nonprofits too. Employees speak up. The executives know the director is a problem, doesn’t work toward improvement, isn’t even increasing revenues. Yet the executives won’t make a change.

    Now I’m working for a Development Director who I think is a great boss. She always tells me I can be honest and tell her when I think she’s wrong. Unlike in my previous situation, I figured she meant it. However, the one time I have brought a significant criticism to this boss, she threw a fit. Literally was giving me the cold shoulder and slamming doors for a week. Luckily she got over it, and now things are going well again. But is that just to be expected when bosses are criticized? Are there many bosses out there who take criticism well?

    • Hey Young Professional, hang in there. It’s NOT to be expected that a boss blows up at you if you criticize them. Now, maybe that boss just had a bad day, but hanging on like that for a week is, well, childish and unprofessional. There is a lot of fear out there. Fear is a powerful motivator to act badly. The best thing you can do is learn from all this, take the high-road and when you are in a position of leadership do the right thing. We’re getting a lot of feedback on this post. I think we’ve hit a nerve.


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