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Throughout your life and career, you are under the tutelage of many, many leaders. From your parents to your teachers, your first boss to your last, you are learning from those who lead you. Even if you’re the CEO, the people below you are leading their teams, and you’re learning from them, too.
So often, we only pay attention to the great examples of leadership, emulating those we feel had a profound impact on us personally because of their legendary leadership style. But the reality is that we learn just as much, if not more, from the “bad” leaders we encounter on our journey.
When you do a personality assessment or an exploratory career exam, one of the things you’re supposed to think about are the traits you don’t have, or the job you don’t want to do. It helps you see more clearly who you are and what you want to do.
The same can be said for leadership. As you observe the leaders around you, above you and below you, it’s often easier to identify what you don’t want to repeat in your own leadership. Here are three reasons why “bad” leadership makes us better:
1) It helps us pinpoint our values.
When we see a leader doing something that frustrates us, or treating a colleague in a way we wouldn’t, it bothers us because it’s not in line with our own values. For some people, that’s putting the bottom line above the way people are treated. For others, it’s inconsistency in policies and how they’re enforced. The bottom line here is that when you see something in a leader’s actions that aggravates you, ask yourself why it makes you mad. That tells you more about what you do value, and helps you stay true to that as you lead.
2) It shows us what resonates with others.
As a team member in the thick of things with your co-workers, you hear the good, the bad and the ugly from different perspectives about the organization and its leadership. Because you may know your team members on a more personal level than you know your leaders, seeing what encourages or upsets them about the organization helps you understand what someone with their personality generally responds or doesn’t respond to in a leader. One of the persistent challenges of being a leader is managing all personality types. When you see a leader doing that poorly, and your co-workers are talking about it, take notes about how it could be done more effectively so you have a better understanding of how to lead certain personality types.
3) It allows us to explore our potential.
When we see what we value and what resonates with others, it allows us to dream for ourselves what kind of leader we can and will be. Much like the personality assessment or career test, when we see what we don’t want in a leader, we begin to explore how we do want to lead others.
There are two things to remember when it comes to this concept of learning from bad leadership. First, keep in mind that extremes are going to be what catch our eye and stick in our memory: the celebrated leaders like Nelson Mandela or the teacher that changed your life, as well as the boss that never showed up on time or remembered anybody’s name, but expected everyone else to work 12-plus hours a day and devote their lives to the company.
Second, learning from bad leadership requires a great amount of observation and reflection. The three points above only apply when you take a step back and choose to recognize what you’re learning along the way, and what it means to you. It’s the concept of leading yourself before you can lead others—what kind of leader do you want to be, and how are you going to act on it?
And that is truly the kicker. You’ve seen all these leaders in your life—good, bad and in between—what are you going to do about it? How will you take what you’ve seen and learned and apply it to your own leadership? The world needs leaders worth following. Thinking about all you’ve observed from others, how will you be one?