Thursday, February 28, 2013

Leaders: Bullies by Nature or Nurture?

February seems to be anti-bullying month here at Great Leadership. Here's a guest post from Colin Gautrey:

Many of the behaviours exhibited by leaders can easily be classified as bullying behaviours, especially when many of them converge to form the essence of a leader’s style. In a recent article, I cited 31 behaviours which could be viewed as legitimate yet prone to being misconstrued. Of the more innocent you have…

- Demanding things at short notice.

- Telling people what to do and how to do it.

- Cancelling meetings at short notice.

- Closely monitoring work ― micromanaging.

- Asking people to do things without giving them a reason why.

Do you know any leaders who do these things? Of course you do. Now, what if you add a few less innocent ones into the mix?

- Publically criticising poor performance.

- Taking feedback personally and being defensive.

- Forcing people to do things that they don’t want to do.

- Publically favouring or disfavouring individuals.

- Telling lies and being dishonest for convenience.

Do you know any leaders who do these things? Of course you do. And this is just a small sample from the list!
Many of these could almost be regarded as side-effects to high levels of drive and determination, the innocent little quirks of a multitude of individuals currently residing in leadership positions. No, not everyone who behaves like this is a bully, but they may well appear that way. Particularly to (dare I say it) those of a more “sensitive” disposition. Are you at risk of being misunderstood?
People who are born with drive will grow. Fed and nurtured by experiences, stimuli and results, they will emerge into the world of work with their own unique way of getting things done. With drive and determination valued, they will make progress ― forgiven for a while, for their slightly edgy side. Is that forgiven, or conveniently ignored? They are getting results after all.
Forgiven, ignored, but certainly not forgotten or hidden. If these behaviours are allowed to pervade, they will become increasingly ingrained. And, they contain within them the seed of disaster ― for followers (or rather the led), the organisation and also for the leader. What we tolerate, we nurture. And the longer we nurture, the bigger the consequences and, in reality, the more culpable we become.
The implications vary depending on who you are. Here are some questions to carry with you for a few days…
If you are a leader: How might your behaviour be misconstrued? To what extent are you at risk? What can you do to soften the impact of your drive and determination? How can you retain results while also avoid being regarded as a bully?
If you have leaders reporting to you: To what extent are you tolerating behaviours with latent risk? How can you challenge your team to get results positively? Do your systems influence the likelihood of these behaviours? Are you ignoring the obvious? What could the financial consequences be? And, how does this impact the culture you are presiding over?
If you train or coach leaders: Are you unwittingly encouraging these behaviours? How are you helping people to develop ways to implement “with” the people? Have you got the balance right between care and results? Indeed, are you even aware of the potential problem? Do values, ethics, integrity and trust play a prominent enough role in the work you do?
If you are being bullied: It would be tempting to ask, are you sure? However, if your perception is that you are being bullied, I am not going to try to convince you otherwise. Instead, who can you turn to for help? What resources can you tap into? How much longer will you tolerate this before taking action? What needs to happen for you to feel empowered to act? Don’t suffer in silence, get help.

In my opinion, as we develop leaders, too much emphasis is placed on skills and too little on values. Perhaps, we take positive values for granted and work on the behaviours. Maybe it’s easier, not having to delve into the depths of the human psyche.
Unless skills are added to a robust base of humility, respect for others and fairness, it is difficult to imagine how a great leader will emerge. Conversely, if you have the right value base, the skills will probably take care of themselves and you’ll get a great leadership result. In the process, you might also save on your leadership development spend too ― not to mention avoiding punitive litigation, etc.
Great leaders, truly great leaders are able to deliver drive and determination without the negative side-effects. Sadly, great leaders, truly great leaders, are infinitely small in proportion to the total population of people holding leadership positions.
In writing this article, my earnest desire is to help you to pause and think. It is an important topic which needs to be attended to. Whatever your role, you can have an impact on turning the workplace into a more positive, productive and enjoyable place to work. You have the opportunity to act. Act today.

The Author: Colin Gautrey is author of the Influence Blog ( and several books, including 21 Dirty Tricks at Work and Political Dilemmas at Work. His focus is the practical use of power and influence in the workplace. Find out more about his work at and @colingautrey.


Guy Farmer said...

Great article Colin. We've come to expect leaders to be these blustery creatures that boss everyone around when we would be better served if they stepped back a bit and behaved in ways that encourage their people to shine.

Unknown said...

Thank you Guy. One of the problems is that leaders are naturally in there with a personal agenda and often fail to realise that the optimum way to achieve their agenda is to serve those they lead. Years ago I remember one CEO who simply turned the org. chart the other way up to indicate senior management were there to support the front line staff. Symbolic and powerful.