The Worst Leadership Performances of 2008

baldoni_110.jpgJohn Baldoni, leadership coach and HarvardBusiness.org blogger, on what five exceptionally bad leaders of 2008 have in common. For more on leadership during economic crisis, visit HarvardBusiness.org's Recession Survival Guide.


One of the ways I have fun teaching leadership is to isolate examples of poor stewardship. In accordance with the law of opposites, we sometimes learn better by studying what went wrong rather than what went right. Harvard professor and author Barbara Kellerman demonstrated this principle with her book, Bad Leadership, a truly fine study of reprobates with power.

The current economic crisis is catastrophic in so many ways, but it has proved to be a boon for those of us looking for examples of men and women who have failed to demonstrate leadership when their moment came:

Me-First Award: John Thain. The CEO of Merrill Lynch was miffed that he would not receive a year-end bonus for his leadership of the troubled firm that lost billions. Thain's argument was that he had prevented more severe losses and therefore deserved a more lucrative compensation package. Fortunately, the board did not give in to Thain's vanity.

Trash my Opponent Award: Elizabeth Dole. Fearing that her campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate was losing, she approved a television ad against her opponent calling her "godless." The voters of North Carolina ignored the ad and elected Kay Hagan, a former Sunday school teacher and Presbyterian elder (as well as an accomplished state senator), as their senator. Ms. Dole may have helped her re-election cause if she had been more visible; voters perceived that she spent too much time in D.C. rather than in her home state.

Act Clueless Award: Michael Griffin.
The incumbent administrator of NASA judged Lori Garver, head of president-elect Obama's NASA transition team, as "not qualified" to evaluate the merits of the return-to the moon Constellation rocket program. Griffin then sought an audience with the president-elect. Speculation is that Griffin is afraid that the Obama administration will gut his pet project and so he has asked NASA contractors to withhold information on Constellation.

Nice Guys Finish Last Award: Rick Wagoner. The CEO of General Motors is a genuinely decent and well-intentioned executive. However, under his watch, the General, as it is known locally in Detroit, hemorrhaged share and cash. While Wagoner deserves much praise for his willingness to share the limelight with media-loving executives such as Bob Lutz, his greatest weakness was that he failed to attack the pillars of GM's failed business model: too many brands, too many dealers, and wage and benefit packages that were too high.

Are You Kidding Me Award? Rod Blagojevich. When itemizing the litany of charges against the governor, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show suggested it might be easier to consider what crimes Blagojevich has not been accused of, instead of those he has been charged with. The man with the out-dated hairdo demonstrated that when it came to using his office for profit, he was at the head of the list.

If there is a singular theme that runs through each of these examples, it's entitlement. That is, I come first. Leaders need to think well of themselves; otherwise they wouldn't be capable of leading. But when that sense of self overwhelms the needs of the organization, they have failed in their duty.

Our task, then, is to call them out, isolating their behavior for all to see. Such an exercise is not designed to shame these folks (hardly -- after all, like Mr. Wagoner they may be wonderful human beings), but rather to illustrate the perils of such self-centeredness in the hope that others, particularly our future generations of leaders, will learn what not to do.

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. His work centers on how leaders can use their authority, communications and presence to build trust and drive results. He is the author of six books on leadership, including Lead By Example, 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results.

By HarvardBusiness.org Editors  |  December 23, 2008; 8:35 AM ET
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Comments

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Little rough on Dr. Griffin. Are you saying that a Public Affairs person is more qualified on how rockets work than an engineer?

I'd give credit to Dr. Griffin for standing up to political games that risk people's lives.

Posted by: kolbkl | December 23, 2008 10:43 AM

Lori Garver is far from a "Public Affairs person." She's a former Associate Administrator of NASA, a former Executive Director of the National Space Society, and a recognized authority on NASA and space exploration. If he doesn't think she's qualified to judge his rocket program, why the heck does he want to talk to Obama, who's isn't remotely a rocket scientist?

Posted by: kevinwparker | December 23, 2008 5:44 PM

You forgot the political clowns in Congress who have consistently thought of themselves first throughout this economic crisis. The oversight committees with Dodd and Frank (and all their members)should be highlighted as the "worst" political leaders(?)of all times.

Posted by: vmineb | December 25, 2008 8:35 AM

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