Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Discuss... Does experience of bad leadership predispose you to becoming a good leader?

I’m sure we’ve all had some experience of poor leadership, ranging from the not-so-good to the downright shocking.   

In my early career, I saw many people abuse their positions of authority to the extent that some so-called leaders resorted to physically assaulting their team members.  Fortunately, this was a long time ago and employment law would now land the perpetrators swiftly in the courtrooms.  However, I like to think that the impact that such behaviours have led me to think to myself, “I will never be like that”.

Similarly, throughout my life up until the complete breakdown of our relationship, I have learned some harsh lessons from my father of how not to behave.  My early work and family experiences have led me to conclude that you have choices.  It would have been an easier option to adopt the styles of those that had been placed in positions of authority over me and use the defence of ignorance to protect me from blame, or, I could learn from their mistakes and vow never to repeat them nor establish them as patterns of my own behaviour.   

In truth, it’s my belief that those experiences have made me a better person because I can empathise with people who are subjected to poor leadership both at home and at work.  I still make mistakes and bad decisions; but don’t we all?  But the fact that I can admit to my shortfalls makes me a better leader because along with empathy I can demonstrate humility.  Both are key components in effective leadership and emotional intelligence.

Now doesn’t this all appear to be a bit self-congratulatory? I guess it does to some extent but that’s really not the point.  The point is this question and the answer to it:

Does experience of bad leadership predispose you to becoming a good leader?

If the answer is in the affirmative, then what does that tell us about people fortunate enough to have had a happy and supportive childhood who have only ever experienced good leadership? 

The answer lays in role-modeling. 

But for the person who has no positive role-model I argue that it’s probably easier to make the choice as they will have encountered first-hand the results of poor leadership.  This throws up another question:

Does this mean that those with positive experiences may lack to ability to empathise?

For me, the jury’s out on this one.

What do you think?

Wishing you the best in all that you do,



  1. I think it does depend on one's own values, principles and ethics. We will all have had "bad" experiences (personal and professional)but we need to learn from them, rather than let them define us. However, I do feel that it is hard to stand for what you believe in. What we need more of is ethical and principled leadership - very lacking in working environments, in my experience!

  2. Thank you for your contribution Sandhya, You raise some good points. What defines us? Is it our experiences or is it our innate qualities that makes us potentially good leaders? Or, is it a combination of both? Is it the position of our moral compass or are we inherently 'bad' so we make conscious efforts to be 'good'? We are all mammals after all. Predisposed to the survival of the fittest (if you subscribe to Darwinain theory) and merely use others in order to achieve our goals. Lots of questions, and so many potential answers.

    Best wishes,


  3. Keith, I agree that it is a mix of both - innate qualities and experiences. However, I also think that as humans we do have the ability to rise above our innateness....mindful awareness and the ability to be self-aware. Particularly when we talk about work situations. However, lots of questions too, as you say. Undoubtedly, what society values and rewards is also an important part of the discussion.
    Warm regards,

  4. Does this not lie in the nature and nuture debate to some degree? So if the nurturing in early years was wise and guiding, then perhaps you already possess some of the learned behaviour that others may need to learn later in life and indeed a good set of values?
    Equally everyone has a choice to mirror good or bad behaviour and learn from their own or others' mistakes/poor behaviour.

  5. Sandhya and Debbie,

    So sorry for my delay in replying to both of you. Thank you both for your considered input to the discussion.