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Bad Bosses: Professor Writes About Toxic Leadership

LAUREN GILGER: From powerful CEOs, like Steve Jobs, to now presidential hopeful Senator Amy Klobuchar, it seems lots of powerful leaders are accused of being bad bosses. Last month, the Huffington Post reported that many of Klobuchar's former staffers described her as demeaning and even cruel in the workplace. But it's not just powerful leaders who are toxic, according to our next guest. There are all kinds of bad bosses. In fact, Harvard University's Barbara Kellerman has dedicated her career to studying leaders of all kinds. She's broken them down into seven categories that range from incompetent, to corrupt, to even evil. And she says this is a wide ranging social problem that has not been paid enough attention. I spoke with Kellerman about this and first asked about the systems that allow for it. Is this about the kind of power structures that are set up around leadership? Or is it about the kind of person that is able to get into a position of power?

BARBARA KELLERMAN: Well you're asking the right person the right question because I never talk about just leaders. I always talk about the leadership system. So to me, there are three components of the leadership system. One is the leader. The other are, as I suggested a few minutes ago, the followers or the others. Some people don't like the word followers. So I'll simply say the others. And the third is the context or the situation within which leaders and followers find themselves. Sometimes the most obvious context is a community, sometimes the most obvious context is an organization or the workplace. Sometimes it's a small unit, sometimes it's a large unit. But you cannot understand bad leadership or toxic leadership or evil leadership or inept leadership or bad bosses simply as isolated individuals. Inevitably, they are embedded in a system that allows them to continue to do what they're doing, which is in one or another way, to behave badly.

GILGER: Yeah. So when you look at reports like these that are levied against presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar right now, for example, is it surprising the reaction that's coming to this? There's sort of been this debate, right, that is this may be sexist to call her an abusive boss?

KELLERMAN: So that has, in the case of Senator Amy Klobuchar, come up quite a bit. The issue of if the same behaviors were demonstrated by a man, would they be as offensive? So I have two responses to that. The first one is yes, there is a difference in how male bosses and female bosses are judged. Yes, it is correct to say that female bosses are judged more harshly and we are quicker so to speak, “jump on women,” who seem to be too aggressive or snappy or bossy in their behavior. Having said that, the New York Times recently had a report having interviewed more than two dozen staffers, and those staffers did come up with enough instances of bad boss behavior on the part of Senator Klobuchar, that as I wrote in my blog, I think she's in many ways an attractive centrist candidate. But I would be, I personally — this is just me speaking not as a political scientist but as an American citizen — would be very reluctant to vote for someone who I felt was a bad boss. I have myself very strong feelings about bad bosses. I call them “petty tyrants” and I have come to believe having studied the subject for many years that it is easy enough to be reasonably civil in the workplace, and there is no reason, none, for superiors in the workplace to give subordinates in the workplace a hard time. There are ways of being critical while at the same time being constructive, and if you have someone, so to speak, beneath you who is not competent then it's time to talk to them in a serious way privately but not constantly publicly to humiliate and berate them.

GILGER: So you would be a little reluctant to put somebody like that in a position of power. But it seems like people like this are often in positions of power. Is there an aspect of personality type here, that people who are going to be maybe abusive to their employees tend to be more successful, tend to get farther because they’re maybe ruthless?

KELLERMAN: I don't think they're more successful. I don't think there's any evidence that bad bosses are more successful. There is evidence to suggest that when people get power, they become more of something. So, for example, they become less able to control their impulse to be abusive to subordinates. For example, they become less able to control their impulse to, if they're males, to harass women. So there is evidence that there's an old saying, which you probably have heard Lauren, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It does appear to be the case that when people gain power, especially if it's considerable power, they become badly behaved in ways they were not when they were earlier in their professional or in their leadership lives.

GILGER: Okay so then the final question is what can you do if you are one of these employees and you have a toxic boss or a leader in your organization who is bad — is there anything you can do?

KELLERMAN: Well there is evidence that a bad boss can be really bad for your health. And I would say that if you are in a situation, you're in a workplace, where your boss is really giving you high stress and there is nothing internally you can do about it, you might want to consider changing jobs. However, whenever I'm asked that question I'm very careful because not everybody can change jobs, but I would say there are some strategies, there are ways of talking to a bad boss, there are ways of organizing with some other people in the workplace. So this is not a situation that is impossible to contemplate. It is a situation that is common enough so that people in the field of leadership should pay it considerably more attention than they already do.

GILGER: Alright. Barbara Kellerman is with the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University. Barbara, thank you so much for coming on The Show.

KELLERMAN: My pleasure.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.