Healthy Leaders


A Perspective on Bad Leadership

Adrian PeiAdrian Pei

Our boss just doesn’t get it, or doesn’t appreciate us enough.

Our parents or siblings are creating dysfunction in our family.

We’re deeply disappointed in our political leaders.

We’ve all been there, and gotten a taste of “bad” leadership at some point.  And of course, we’ve probably all made our own share of mistakes along the way.

There’s nothing wrong with being unhappy or disappointed in leadership when it conflicts with our values or doesn’t meet our deepest human needs.  But here’s something I’ve been reflecting on recently:

I’ve learned far more from bad leadership than I have from good leadership.

In other words, bad leadership can be good.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Nothing makes me learn more than when I cause someone else pain.  Right now, I remember a conversation when I didn’t listen well and hurt a friend and co-worker.  It was a turning point for me in seeing how much I needed to grow in my ability to hear peoples’ hearts and not just respond logically or defensively.  My bad leadership made me want to change and grow.

When I see an example of injustice in the news, it’s often painful and heart-wrenching but it also drives me to try to learn why bad things happen.  When I experience dysfunction in my family or workplace, I want to learn what’s causing it and if anything can be done about it.  I’ve read the books that have been most influential in my life, right after my worst experiences in leadership.

I wrote a book on feedback, because I was tired of seeing feedback delivered and received poorly, in myself and in other people.  I co-created a spiritual discussion tool because I was not happy with the kinds of conversations I saw some Christians having with non-Christians – and I wanted to see if there could be another way.

Here are a few other thoughts that I’ve been discussing with my wife.  How many of the greatest leaders and movements in history (e.g. the Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, etc.) have been borne out of the worst environments?  If you read the Bible, there’s no shortage of dysfunctional and corrupt leadership.  That seems to be the norm of what leaders have to work through … and the context out of which great things tend to emerge.

What kind of superhero movie doesn’t begin with a crisis or villain?  Without a context of bad leadership, it would probably be the most boring hero movie of all time.

Finally, think of these words: Hope.  Forgiveness.  Sacrifice.  Unconditional love.  These words would have no meaning apart from bad or adverse circumstances.  We don’t hope unless there’s something wrong we’re experiencing that we wish were different … or something better that we long for.

So as we look at the flawed leaders in our workplace, family, church and government … we shouldn’t excuse or defend the bad or unhealthy things they might do.  But we can use those negative experiences and pain as inspiration – to understand, change, act, and create something different. 

Bad leadership doesn’t have to be the end of the story.  In most of history and fiction, in fact, it’s usually just the starting point … for great things to be born, and great leaders to be inspired.

Where will you find your inspiration today?

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Adrian Pei