“Bad Leaders” Don’t Exist

I’m on a mission to re-frame the way we think about nonprofit leadership — specifically, “leaders.” I’ve been listening for years to people talk about their experiences with “bad leaders,” and it has left me with the following conclusion: if leadership is supposed to be a good practice, why do we so loosely throw around the title with regard to bad practitioners?

Who’s had horrible managers? Can I get a show of hands? Folks, those people are not “bad leaders.” At best, they’re sh*tty bosses. There’s a much larger issue at hand when those sh*tty bosses keep on keepin’ on, though that doesn’t make them any less sh*tty.


In any case, this rant is all about analogies which compare sh*tty bosses to drivers, and their use of turn signals… or lack thereof. So bear with me while I present to you four different fictitious sh*tty nonprofit bosses.

  • No Signal, No Action: For the sake of this analogy, let’s call his person “Bob.” Bob is nice enough, but as the months and years go by working with Bob, you realize not only does Bob have no plans, he doesn’t actually do very much. Bob never uses a turn signal, because he never goes anywhere. Bob would be better suited as a popcorn vendor at a movie theater.
  • No Signal, Action: Let’s call this person “Donna.” Oh Donna… Donna has a sordid past. She’s “resigned” from several jobs under questionable circumstances, yet nonprofits keep hiring her for “leadership positions.” Donna never signals where she’s going, but she turns all the time, leaving people totally confused and aggravated. Donna should win the lottery and stay home.
  • Signal, No Action: Here we have “Phil.” In every staff meeting, Phil tells the team about his plans — and might even lay out steps for the plans — but three or six months down the road, Phil hasn’t done or managed any progress on the plan. Phil uses his turn signal, but never actually turns; he just drives straight for miles and miles, leaving his blinker on, frustrating the entirety of the driving citizenry. Phil should be a professional Yelp reviewer.
  • Signal, Different Action: This is “Clark.” For some reason — probably because Clark has been at the organization over 20 years — he pretty much does whatever he wants. He takes lots of action, though much of it is different than what he says he’ll do. When Clark uses his left turn signal, he turns right, but not before cutting someone off. He should go into consulting, where no one will hire him.

All that considered, it behooves me to mention one contrarian perspective: Signal, Action. This person is “John,” and in this analogy, John is the good egg. John follows the rules of the road, and knows where he’s going and why. When John signals right, he turns right. Everyone around him appreciates it, and those who travel with him enjoy the ride. John acts like a leader, and we should all aspire to be like John.

At the end of the day, many of us don’t have a John. And as an industry, we need to be better about shaping all the bad drivers out there into Johns. But rest assured, there is life after Bob… And Donna… And Phil… And Clark…


Listening > Hearing

For a hypochondriac, it’s bizarre to get good news from a doctor about one thing, when you’re at the doctor for a different thing. Such was the case a few months ago when I thought I had my fourth ear infection in as many months. After a barrage of tests — including a hearing exam — I came to not only find I was sans ear infection, but I evidently have “impeccable hearing.”

For someone who spent 20+ years in rock bands, this was fascinating news. And while it didn’t solve my health issue, it left me with a thought: hearing is only a physiological process; listening is what’s important.

Once, I had a particularly unfortunate nonprofit manager who said a lot of things — let’s call this manager “Don.” Those things varied in scale from inconsequential to flat out offensive. When someone would disagree, Don would famously say, “you’re not hearing me.” To be fair, while we may have been hearing Don, very few of us were interested in actually listening.


A little chart about shenanigans

When I play the experiences back in my mind, I realize a pretty common nonprofit thing was happening. Rather than listening to the staff, Don simply waited for breaks in conversation to interject his point. Often, those points flew in the face of good practices, ethically and otherwise.

At the time, our team had decades of great experience, and was really skilled in our respective areas. Don, on the other hand, was not, and so many of his interjections were things we couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do. When someone manages with this lack of reality-based understanding, I believe it shows a major listening deficiency. [I talk a bit about that, here]

The takeaway? Just remember what acclaimed rock band Jimmy Eat World has to say on the subject: “Are you listening? Woaaaaaaaaaaah.”