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Why Good Leaders Go Bad

By a show of hands, I ask in my leadership workshops, how many of you have worked for a bad boss or bosses?

Reliably, almost every hand shoots up. Enduring a jerk of a boss seems to be a workforce universal constant in every industry. This is reflected in popular culture in movies like Horrible Bosses and Horrible Bosses 2 and television shows like Undercover Boss. And of course, there always seems to be a jerk leader featured in news headlines.

The pandemic spurred “The Great Resignation,” or, as leadership expert Sally Helgesen said, “The Great Reckoning.” Employees are now less likely to endure toxic environments and jerky bosses, meaning if jerk leaders flourish in your culture (or remain unchallenged), it will be harder to retain and attract top talent.

The old leadership style of “command and control” is out of style—or should be. While in the short run, telling people what to do might be more efficient, it won’t work in this post-pandemic world.

Numerous leaders participate in seminars and workshops, attend various leadership institutes, read books on the topic (if leadership bestseller lists are any measure), and love to include a certification from Harvard on their résumés.

This, then, begs the question: Why are there so many bad leaders? And what does that mean for HR professionals tasked with developing leaders in their organization?

I don’t think most people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “Today, I am going to be a bad leader.” But clearly, something happens between leadership intent and leadership practice.

For many, I believe jerk leaders are made when the dark side of their ego takes control and they become authoritarian.

The Shadow Side

For my book, Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts, I interviewed more than 100 thought leaders, “Sages,” about leadership. My research revealed that understanding ego development should be part of leadership development. Understanding the ego is essential for gaining insight into what motivates and drives leaders, and this understanding is needed to understand yourself. So much of leadership involves initiating, leading, and sustaining change, and the ego can enhance or inhibit change efforts. David Richo, author of Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power & Creativity of Your Dark Side, told me, “Invested in ego, we defend against change. Divested of ego, we work cooperatively toward change.”

You can think of our “ego” as our attempt to secure ourselves in a world that offers no guarantees, and consequently, we end up in a complex and painful enterprise to make sure that “I am going to be OK.” Because we never get such reliable assurances, we spend our time protecting ourselves instead of focusing on others, which is a leader’s real job.

When people don’t feel secure, they’re more likely to feel frustrated, angry, and frightened. That’s when the dark side (shadow) of the ego emerges in behaviors such as defensiveness; not being open to feedback; micromanaging; belittling or manipulating others; narcissism; greed; jealousy; and, most of all, excessive control. All these behaviors make for jerk bosses who (intentionally or not) create a toxic environment for employees.

As mentioned above, this is all further complicated by the fact that being efficient and decisive is desirable leadership behavior. As an HR professional, you may have been praised for these behaviors or praised an employee with high potential who possessed them.

But these laudable behaviors can easily be taken too far in times of stress. Interestingly, many strengths taken to an extreme become weaknesses. A great public speaker who can command the room often would rather talk than listen to others, but listening is another critical leadership skill (especially post-pandemic). Alternatively, decisive leaders under strain may forget (or dismiss) that their decisions must be carried out by and will impact those they lead.

HR professionals need to be aware of this as they develop leaders; no one can predict the future, but it seems safe to say we’ll continue to see uncertain times that demand flexibility and collaboration over control. It’s not one or the other; a leader can be both decisive and compassionate.

Overcoming the Ego

When I first started my monthly “Becoming a Sage” podcast, my driving question was “How can I best prepare leaders to be the kinds of leaders needed in these uncertain times?” These interviews were taking place around 2008 during the financial crisis. I continue to interview Sages, and, both then and now, learning how to control the ego emerges as a consistent theme. So much of what it takes to excel as a leader has to do with self-management—knowing who you are at a deep level—and how you use this knowledge and awareness to build relationships. This is the inner work of emotional intelligence (EQ).

When I interviewed Jim Autry, author and former Fortune 500 executive, he told me that we need to use compassion and empathy to overcome an ego that wants to control us. These values guide us toward understanding other people rather than trying to compete with them.

“We often follow the wrong role models,” Autry explained. “We have failed to shut up and listen. We often fail to think deeply before we act. … There seems to be an obsession with self and money—too much emphasis on developing our own personal brand and influencers. The real influencers should be servant leaders who embrace relationships, are supportive and compassionate, yet accountable.”

But as human beings, we have to have an ego, or we wouldn’t be able to stand up! I often use the metaphor of an elevator to explain the ego. It’s natural to have feelings such as insecurity, jealousy, and competitiveness—higher floors on the elevator. This is where the negative feelings tend to live when the ego takes over. But when we experience these feelings, we need to acknowledge them and tell ourselves, “I need to let go. These are not feelings I want to control my behaviors.”

When HR professionals or their leaders feel the higher floors’ buttons “lighting up,” they need to hit the button and go back to the ground floor—to get grounded. This is how a person takes control of the ego.

I like to say, “Your ego is not your amigo.” If we aren’t aware of the “elevator” going up, then the ego wants to control us instead of us controlling the ego. Author Ryan Holliday says it best with the title of his popular book Ego is the Enemy.  

But ego doesn’t have to be the enemy if we understand ego development. Because leadership is a relationship, learning how to control the ego helps us in all relationships—family and friends.

Be the Leader We Need

Now is the time for leaders to behave in ways others want to follow. Don’t be a jerk or bully. Get your ego out of the way, and connect with people.

All leaders should ask themselves this question and answer honestly: Are people better off because I am their leader? As pointed out, ego and narcissism aren’t the way to win the hearts and souls of employees. Command-and-control leadership isn’t healthy, and it isn’t going to work in the reality of the new work environment. There’s a saying I often use to emphasize this point: Leaders should clear obstacles and not be the obstacle.

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development coach and speaker, as well as the author of Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering (Routledge). You can learn more about Freed at and more about Breadcrumb Legacy at

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