Leadership By Genocide

There’s an old, proven saying that states, “Failure is a far better teacher than success.” There exists a corollary to this, that sometimes poor examples of leadership are the best teachers, because they show us what not to aspire to be.

We can all learn from great leaders, yet we can also learn from the worst of leadership, which illustrates the pitfalls that can destroy organizations and undermine morale. We can learn so we can define what we will never do in our personal pursuit of being a great leader.

Much has been written on what constitutes true or great leadership, but what about horrid leadership, the kind that frankly doesn’t even merit the descriptor of “leadership”? In the spirit of learning, it is worth it to take a closer look.

The rock bottom of the leadership scale is what I term “leaders by genocide.” I mean this in a conceptual — not literal — sense, of course. What these kinds of “leaders” do — and they represent the worst kind of leader — is eliminate entire swaths of an organization solely to protect themselves, their egos, and their own aspirations. They put the idea of “servant leadership” on its head. They don’t serve anyone but themselves.

In 30 years in the corporate world, I have seen four specific types of “leaders by genocide” and they are absolute cancers that can cause irreparable damage to an organization. Let’s look at each one:

• Leadership via eliminating dissent: The best leaders encourage open forums and the sharing of diverse views. President Harry Truman was famous for his refusal to allow a meeting to end, “until he hears someone disagree with him.” He didn’t want people coddling him as president; he wanted differing views! Conversely, it was a well-known dynamic in the George W. Bush administration — the lowest-rated US president in modern history — that anyone who disagreed with Bush would lose their position in the inner circle. Leaders by genocide wipe out the free thinkers and courageous talent, and end up surrounded by supreme ass-kissers who shield the leader from reality and are little more than the classic “yes” men and women. They don’t get the benefit of differing views and a true picture of reality.

• Leadership by dodging bullets: The great leaders lead from the front. They take responsibility for the outcome and protect their people from the “bullets.” Leaders by genocide view their people as little more than cannon fodder; when the situation gets tough they duck behind their people and force them to take the bullet instead. They shun responsibility and always find someone in their ranks to take the blame when things go wrong. It’s self-preservation in the worst form.

• Leadership by “being in the club”: Great leaders embrace diversity and frankly don’t care about the background or personal choices of their people as long as they have talent and deliver. They don’t care who somebody sleeps with, whom they might pray to, or what color their skin is. Leaders by genocide, on the other hand, create a fraternity of sorts, where they welcome and favor those who are in their “club” — be it the same church or religious beliefs, the same tribe or ethnic group, or even the same business school — and treat everyone else as second-tier citizens of the team. And eventually they drive those who are different to leave. In the US I have seen MBAs play this game with fellow graduates from the same school, and from my vantage point their MBA meant little more than “Mediocre But Arrogant.”

Among the many mistakes I have made in my career are a few cases of allowing those who follow leadership by genocide to remain in my organizations too long, giving them too many chances, and only acting to move them long after they have damaged the team and harmed countless individuals. In world-class organizations, there is no room for leadership by genocide, especially in the race for top talent in today’s global economy.

Leadership by genocide is nothing more than a cop-out. It’s a character flaw exposed at its roots as insecurity, fear, and vindictiveness.

True leadership is clearly all about courage. It’s embracing those who are different, those who challenge us, those who may be better than us. It’s standing in the line of fire, prepared to take a bullet.

It’s rare.

And that’s why we profoundly value true leadership.