Why Bad Leaders Rise to the Top, And Why We Keep Following Them


Why does it seem like the most self-serving, arrogant jerks always get put in charge? Why does one of our two major political parties have an egotistical narcissist as its nominee?

How do noble institutions (such as masajid) seem to fall prey to being run by people wrought with wrong intentions?

Why does the talking head on YouTube get tens of thousands of more hits than the person with a qualified and nuanced opinion?

I recently attended a one-day leadership training seminar. It's exactly what you would expect - lots of focus on mastering people skills, relationships, empathy, communication, humility, and so on. A lot of the common sense, good-behavior type of things we all wish were characteristic of those we work for. Toward the end of the day, someone asked, "What do you do if you're stuck with a bad leader?"

The instructor joked, "You mean other than tell them to take this seminar?" To which the reply was, "She's already been through this seminar."


And that's exactly the problem. She knows what she is supposed to do, she's received training on what to do, yet her behavior hasn't changed. This is the premise that Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer explores in his book Leadership BS. He presents a disconnect. We have a record amount of leadership training, yet the factors by which we grade them (employee engagement and turnover) are at all-time worsts.

Take a parallel to the masjid. 15 years ago, we all thought things would get better because now people who were brought up here, understood the environment, had better soft skills, worked better with others, were more literate in Islamic studies and so on, would be taking over things. But that hasn't happened. In many cases, things have gotten worse.

The internet is the same thing. The revolution of social media was that it eliminated the gatekeepers. Now anyone could start their own blog (*cough*), their own YouTube channel, and be their own media outlet without someone else having to pick and approve them. This was supposed to create an open marketplace where the best of the best would rise to the top. And yet, we see no-name, unqualified people who refute Islamic scholars getting tens of thousands of more views than the scholars themselves that are actually producing beneficial content. Again, a disconnect.

In short, we have tons of knowledge about how everything should be, but everything appears to be more dysfunctional than ever.

Think about the most toxic workplace you've ever been in, or the most toxic leader you've worked for. Now imagine that so many millions of people like this person that they make him the presidential nominee for one of the two major political parties. How is that even possible?

In this post we will take a look at some of they key characteristics that allow bad leaders to rise to the top - and why people let them stay there.

People Do What They're Incentivized To Do

The objectives and interests of an individual leader are not always with that of the organization. In most cases, they actually diverge.

Think about the best player on a bad basketball team in the last year of his contract. He is not incentivized to sacrifice for the team and help win games. What's best for his career is to put up good numbers (even if it means losing), and get rewarded with a more lucrative contract at the end of the season.

Think about all the CEO's who have destroyed their companies but still gotten huge bonuses. CEO's of the major auto manufacturers crashed an entire industry, received a government bailout, and rewarded themselves with handsome bonuses. What incentive did they have to do otherwise? We might feel angry at them, especially for misusing taxpayer money, but the reality is people will do what most benefits their own career.

Why would Dick Cheney push for an invasion of Iraq when there is no evidence of WMD's? Was he incentivized to vet intelligence on behalf of the country and his office, or make money for Halliburton? It really shouldn't be a surprise.

Masjids are no different. Board members and committee members aren't really incentivized to think long term. What's the point of investing in human resources or building up an investment portfolio. Those things don't bring the same recognition as putting your name on a construction project. Part of the reason there is a conflict when hiring an imam is the divergence of interests. People in power are incentivized to find whoever serves their needs most instead of the community - hence the typical arguments about ethnicity, age, language, qualification, and so on.

Look at this tweet from when Dick Costolo joined Twitter as COO.


This tweet was made tongue in cheek, but a year after this tweet he was CEO.

When a person gets to the top by being selfish, sticking to their own agenda, and trampling over others, they'll continue to do it. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

Part of the disconnect is we end up studying an idealized version of what a leader should do, and we neglect to study how a person rises to the top. We study how things should be instead of critically analyzing how things actually are.

Pfeffer relates a story about graduates from a prestigious business school,

10-20 percent ... left their jobs involuntarily within the first couple of years postgraduation. Again, the predominant cause of the firings: people believed in the world described to them in business school and in the prescriptions for leader behavior. Consequently, they were surprised by and completely unprepared for what they actually encountered at work. And when their leaders failed to live up to the expectations of these new hires, many of those folks let the leaders know, either directly or indirectly, how they were failing and how the subordinates were feeling, thereby completely sealing [their] fate.

The mistake we make is thinking that inspiration, or even education, will solve this problem. Inspiration doesn't produce change. Especially not when results are measured by titles earned, salary made, funds raised, social media followers, and likes on posts (friendly reminder, click here to share this post on Facebook).

Surely someone in charge of a masjid would change their behavior after taking a class on the seerah, right? Not unless there's an incentive to do so.


Lack of Self-Awareness

When people attain a leadership role, they tend to talk about their rise to the top with a heavy dose of revisionist history.

Pfeffer gives an example of one business school professor that has published leadership books and was a previously an industry CEO. His colleagues would often say about him that as a teacher of leadership he lived the values more as a professor than he actually did as a CEO.

This is 'motivated cognition,' as Pfeffer explains,

[P]eople are motivated to think well of themselves. Therefore, not only do individuals perceive themselves to be above average for most positive attributes and believe that the qualities in which they excel are the most important ... but individuals will also selectively remember their successes and forget their failures or shortcomings.

We want to turn our leaders into heroes and study their biographies. We idealize who they were, and some stock set of values they proffer in a book, but we ignore the day to day realities of what they were sometimes like - and in many cases they were complete jerks. 

Because people have a tendency to highlight the positives, the more they retell their own story, the more they actually believe what they're saying. We've all seen 'that guy' who gives a grandiose story about how he got to where he is, and we know that it's complete baloney. The reality is, that person isn't being deceptive in a malicious sense, they've probably reached the point where they simply believe what they're saying.

We also let them get away with it. They're not talking facts and figures that we're going to verify statistically. They're telling stories - stories that make us feel good. What's the harm in some feel good banter?

Part of the lack of self-awareness is a reliance on past deeds. For a bad leader, a past good deed becomes a license to do something that otherwise may be unethical. If I donate a significant amount of money to the masjid, I can influence the decision making to my own advantage (even if that interest is not necessarily aligned with the community at large).

Malcolm Gladwell explores this in detail in a podcast episode called The Lady Vanishes. To put this argument another way. It's like someone responding to an assertion that they're racist by saying "but I have friends who are black." Or in a more modern context, it is like someone voting for Obama and then following it up by being more openly racist then before - having proven their good deed by voting for him.

Once someone has received validation - usually in the form of praise for what they have done, they're no longer incentivized to change future behavior. The higher a person moves up, the more this happens. Think about the terrible khateeb who has been giving khutbah for 20 years. Every week someone tells them they're doing an amazing job. After a while, they tend to not only believe it, but it invalidates any future criticism no matter how valid.


This is the logical next step after the above characteristics. Narcissism is associated with characteristics like arrogance, self-importance, lack of empathy, obsession with their own success, belief in their own special status or abilities, entitlement, and seeking admiration from others. They're people who compete intensely even when it doesn't matter - they're as equally unlikely to pass the ball to an open teammate during a game of pickup basketball as they are giving credit to someone else even if they deserve it.

The conundrum is this. To attain a leadership position, you have to get noticed. You have to get noticed by a manager to get a promotion. You have to get noticed by customers or clients. You have to get noticed by people who will vote for you (whether it's the board of a local nonprofit, or head of state).

You've got to sell yourself. Hype up your accomplishments. In other words, the exact opposite of humility and modesty (things that we would normally argue are key character traits we want in a leader). Self-confidence, in this case, and self-promotion go hand in hand.

This is obviously exacerbated in the social media age. Remember, we're the generation that made the Kardashians famous.

Pfeffer adds to this,

In the case of leadership, if you project confidence and claim competence with enough conviction to be credible, observers will tend to assimilate any information about you in ways consistent with the idea that you know what you are doing and are deserving of a position of leadership

In other words, when someone arrogantly hypes themselves up as deserving of a position (usually due to selfish motives and a lack of self-awareness), it's relatively easy for them to get the position they want. They push to fill leadership gaps. And once they get it, people assume that they must know what they're doing, and they go along with it. This is why you may have someone trying to make a career out of being an Imam despite having no qualifications, and people not only hire them, but will treat them like scholars and go to them with issues of fiqh and counseling.

This makes the hadith of the Prophet (s) that much more profound - "Do not ask for a position of leadership, for if you receive it due to asking, you will be left alone with it, and if you receive it without asking, then you will be aided [by Allah] in it."

Narcissism is something we consider so abhorrent that it's perplexing how someone could act like that when it damages everyone around them. The reality is people who are narcissistic never deal with the negative consequences, they simply see themselves climbing higher and higher up.

When something negative does come along, because of their lack of self-awareness, they shift the blame to those around them.

Take the example of Fir'awn. Shaykh Yaser Birjas gave an entire khutbah on the 'bad leadership' lessons from Fir'awn. He explains one incident where Fir'awn, after seeing the miracle of Musa, gets worried and goes to his advisors (the magicians of his court). They gave him the advice to bring Musa (as) in and essentially have a debate to see who had better magic. We know how the story ends with the magicians submitting and believing. This should have been a moment of sheer humiliation for Fir'awn. His own advisors suddenly turning on him in public after advising him to have this event. The whole thing has backfired. Instead, Fir'awn, like a true politician, says,

[Pharaoh] said, "You believed him before I gave you permission. Indeed, he is your leader who has taught you magic. So I will surely cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will crucify you on the trunks of palm trees, and you will surely know which of us is more severe in [giving] punishment and more enduring" (20:71).

He uses his eloquence to basically say, "Oh Ok, this was a plot, and you were all in on it, and Musa is your master who taught you these tricks." And the people believed him despite what they saw with their own eyes.

These types of leaders are extremely effective at scapegoating others for all their issues. They will find ways to deflect it on others, or if that's not possible, then they'll simply blame environmental factors (like the economy). Many will even take it to the point of putting everything in terms of "us vs. them" on each issue. Or they'll resort to child-like tantrums when challenged and constantly do things like threaten to resign their post - thinking no one would accept that because of all the previous good they have done.

Michael Maccoby actually makes a similar point about Donald Trump, writing in the Harvard Business Review,

But his appeal may have even more to do with his personality. No one pushes Trump around, and no insult goes unanswered. He fights back. He is not cautious or fearful of offending a critic or any of America’s adversaries. In this, Trump has a personality type that’s common to the charismatic leaders who emerge in times of turmoil and uncertainty, when people are ready to follow a strong leader who promises to lead them to greatness. ....

They can become so tied to their visions that they lose touch with reality. They can become so self-important and thin-skinned that they lash out at subordinates who question them. They can act as though the rules don’t apply to them. They can end up isolated in their own worlds.

Another hadith becomes pertinent here, "Some eloquent speech is as effective as magic (Bukhari)." When you combine all these factors, it then becomes no surprise that someone like Dajjal will have tons of followers.

Power corrupts. The way this happens for a narcissist is that they start believing the rules no longer apply to them.


This is what you do when you think the rules no longer apply to you. Lying brings the most amount of benefit to a bad leader, with the least amount of negative consequences.

James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, famously testified in front of Congress that intelligence officials weren't collecting data on American citizens. This was proven false later when Edward Snowden famously exposed them. In the ensuing aftermath, Clapper has yet to face any real consequences, while Snowden is currently in Russia seeking asylum while under threat of prosecution by the US Government.

People do what they're incentivized to do. In this case, what is the incentive for lying, and what is the incentive for whistleblowing? The answers to those questions explains why the status quo is the way it is. It perpetuates this vicious cycle that Pfeffer outlines,

A cycle of behavior is created. Because lying produces few to no severe sanctions, lying increases in frequency. Because lying is then common, it becomes normative, in the sense that norms describe common behavioral patterns. Because lying becomes normative, it isn't sanctioned, because it makes no sense to try to punish widespread, almost taken-for-granted behavior.

Similarly, the more people or organizations break promises, the more we come to expect that behavior. Then when it happens, there is less and less outrage. We're told to 'deal with it' because that is how things are - 'it is what it is'.

Sadly, it doesn't stop there. One reason that lying benefits bad leaders is because most people simply want to believe them. Pfeffer gives the example of Bernie Madoff famously swindling people out of millions through a ponzi scheme. Many people could see the returns seemed to good to be true, but never looked into it in detail because they were hoping it was true.

We want to believe the best about people, even to our own detriment. The same way we simply assume that someone having a certain position must somehow mean they're qualified.

This leads to 'moral decoupling'. It's like saying we're going to ignore an NBA player's infidelity because of their performance on the court. Pfeffer writes,

Our motivation to rationalize and decouple so we can continue doing what we want to do helps ensure the absence of sanctions for lying. And with positive reasons to deceive - creating a reality in which what was originally untrue becomes true - and with few to no sanctions for doing so, why would we expect most leaders or anyone else to do anything different?

In other words, for someone like Trump, his supporters will stand behind him regardless of if he lies or not. They really don't care about the lies or fact-checking. They've bought into the alternate reality he has created that serves their selfish interests. The way his followers rationalize that is the exact same logic (albeit on a substantially smaller scale) as someone who supports an pro athlete even though he may have been found guilty of domestic violence. And it's the same logic when a community lets someone in the masjid make up lies to create havoc - accusing those calling for accountability of creating fitnah.

The self-deception becomes important here because it doesn't just apply to bad leadership. It applies to us as well. We deceive ourselves by thinking we are good judges of character. We overlook things as 'one time' issues, or things that won't happen again because we feel like we know who they are as a person. So we'll maintain relationships and friendly appearances with someone even if they are outright oppressing those under their control. We think - after all, if this person was truly that bad, I of all people would have noticed it by now.

The reality is we will never hold someone accountable for their behavior or their lies until those lies personally affect us. When the harm is affecting other people, we don't feel the need to speak up - we trust our judgment of that person. In fact, we might even blame the victim and find excuses for the leader. Think about how the media spins narratives of innocent people who are killed by saying things like "well that person dressed like a thug."

Not only that, but we'll actually put up with harm from leaders out of self-interest. It's the famous saying about why the middle-class agrees to tax cuts that harm them for the rich. They've been sold the dream that one day they also will be rich, and so when they are, they want to enjoy the benefits.

It's only when something is directed at us do our attitudes finally change. Go back to the example of the masjid. This is issue is the root of dysfunction. The accountability mechanism for a governing body is the general community. When that community becomes apathetic, those in charge will never be held accountable. And as long as the harms of that governing body are affecting other people, the community simply won't care enough to force a change. They'll attribute negativity to politics, "thats how things are", "it is what it is", or blaming the victim.

There is an extreme cognitive dissonance that is common to all these scenarios. It's summed up nicely by Pfeffer in talking about a person who hates their job,

The idea that I have joined and voluntarily remain in a place, and the idea that the place I am in is run by some incompetent, venal, mean individual, are two highly discordant thoughts. It is often difficult to change the reality of my joining and remaining in my present place of employment. It is much easier to change my perception of the leader and my workplace, deciding that they are actually wonderful and special, which is why it was so sensible for me to join and remain in the first place.

So What Do We Do?

Despite the shortcomings of some leaders themselves, the actual skill of leadership is still a vital one. It is needed to lift people up and tackle major challenges. We simply need to look north of the border to Canada and the election of Justin Trudeau. Friends of mine who are active in the community in Canada said the air literally felt differently the day after he was elected. The climate changed almost immediately from one of negativity to suddenly being more welcoming and positive.

The fact that we defer to leaders and follow them so willingly works both ways. The challenge is in finding the good leaders and supporting them.

In our personal lives, it means we must adopt a more cautious approach. This is a middle ground between wildly naive optimism and paranoid pessimism. It means doing due diligence on someone before following them as a leader. That could mean voting for someone, working for someone, learning from someone, or even hiring someone.

Standing for justice, and 'helping your brother whether he is oppressed or the oppressor', are not tag-lines or slogans. They are real concepts that have a direct impact on our society. We have to think about how to apply these in a way that extends beyond simply the issues that affect us personally.

For our communities, it means we need to tackle the challenge of governance. What gets measured gets changed. If people do what they're incentivized to do, then we need to change the incentives. Take the example from earlier about a star player on a bad team trying to simply take care of his own stats. What if the salary structure was changed and the majority of the pay was dependent on the number of team wins? The statistics and output from that person would change dramatically.

We also need to rededicate ourselves to a proper study of the life of the Prophet (s) - the best leader to have ever lived. From his example we will learn all those skills that are needed of a good leader such as strength, vision, compassion, and humility. Leaders like that exist in our midst. They are just as rare in the corporate world as they are in our communities, but they're there. Their rarity though, should not lead us to embrace the status quo to try to make short-term successes. It means treading the tougher path to do it the right way.

The Prophet (s) said, "Indeed Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange as it began. So Tūba (glad tidings) is for the ghurabā (strangers). (Tirmidhi)"