Is there such a thing as a good or bad leader? It may seem like a simplistic question, and some may say that there is no such thing as a "bad" leader, just an ineffective one. But good and bad (which is not equivalent to evil) are an integral part of every individual's moral development. They are concepts that refer to value judgments of people and things and help us manage humanity's natural chaotic existence.
If a leader is understood as someone who motivates others to act towards achieving a common goal, then good or bad refers to our perception of the value, validity and worthiness not only of the actions taken by that leader, but also of the means used to take those actions (social influence vs. authority or power) and the end pursued (the greater good or just good for a few).
Not all leaders are the same, but those perceived as good leaders do share common character qualities: honesty and integrity, humble and inspiring, visionary and committed, decisive and driven, disciplined and hard-working, passionate and self-motivated, active listener and empowering of others, influential and charismatic.
Good leaders are also entrepreneurial: risk taker, work ethic, creative, think out of the box, determined, courageous, motivated, continuous learner. This doesn’t mean that there is a specific kind of leadership that many call “entrepreneurial leadership”, as opposed to some other kind of leadership. All good leaders apply their character qualities to organize a group of people, or an entire nation, towards a common goal by minimizing risk and optimizing shared opportunities for growth while taking personal responsibility for actions taken and managing change constructively for the benefit of all.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her seminal book Leadership in Turbulent Times, draws on four U.S. presidents to show how these character qualities came into play to define good leadership through distinct individual styles that responded to their time.
Lincoln was a transformational leader. By unveiling and implementing the Emancipation Proclamation, he fashioned appalling suffering into a narrative that gave direction, purpose and lasting inspiration. He combined transactional and transformational leadership to inspire his followers to identify with something larger than themselves, by demonstrating integrity, active listening, emotional intelligence, respect, and dignity.
Theodore Rooselvelt was a crisis management leader. He led a progressive battle to restore fairness to America’s economic and social life by creatively and deftly managing crisis and sharing credit for successful resolution.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a turnaround leader. In 100 days he forever altered the relation between the government and people by creating a New Deal. He led by example, teamwork, cooperation, readiness to adapt, and the use of history to provide perspective and restored confidence to the spirit and morale of the people. He told the story simply and directly, striking a balance between realism and optimism.
Lyndon B. Johnson may be remembered more for his failure at war than his successes as a leader. But he was a visionary leader. He forged a successful transition following Kennedy’s assassination by honoring commitments, imposing discipline and using his mastery of the legislative process and the power of narrative to trace a vision for a Great Society built on racial and economic justice far beyond the dreams of the New Deal. Unfortunately, he later became an example of how leadership can fail when the leader fails to instill a sense of shared purpose and direction with war.
All four presidents had different backgrounds, abilities and temperaments, but they shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. And all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose and at moments of great challenge were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.
Where are the good leaders today? There seems to be a growing poverty of leadership: a generalized lack of integrity, a lack of accountability, little vision for the future, poor communication skills, intimidation, a lack of courage to tackle difficult problems and a shifting of blame to others.
Everyone’s looking for a quick fix. But, as Aaron Webber wrote in a Quora post way back in 2016 you can’t just do leadership. It’s not a hat you can put on and take off at will. It’s a culmination of the good and bad/positive and negative things you’ve done in life. It’s about the strength to recognize your failures and accomplishments and the capacity to translate them into transformational change for common good.
In its essence, good leadership is the ability to be genuine about who you are and what you’re about. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, why should others trust your ability to lead?