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Bullying or strong leadership?

Better Business | Business Insights | Hiring the best

It’s been a bad week for bullies, following the departures of senior executives at Uber and a report into British Cycling.

  • Bullies have been exposed in recent weeks, but in both cases, they had led extremely successful businesses
  • There is a fine line between committed leadership and bullying, the key is how it is managed
  • Research suggests many people react positively to having had an intimidating leader

Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick was forced out by investors after a string of embarrassing incidents – in particular, an accusation of sexual harassment and a compromising film of him berating one of the company’s drivers.

He was followed out the door by Uber director David Bonderman, who fell on his sword after making a crass joke about women talking too much when answering questions about the group’s sexist culture.

"The trouble with visionaries is that they are used to challenging accepted thinking and may be none too keen to head the advice of others."

Then there was the report into British Cycling, which found a culture of bullying and sexism against top-level cyclists. The report said British Cycling lacked good governance at board level and a ‘culture of fear’ existed within the team, Leaders from British Cycling are forming an official response to the criticism laid out in the report, but admitted there had been failings.

The problem with both Uber and British Cycling was that they were hugely successful in their time. Their current problems show how short a step it is from committed, strong leadership to bullying and harassment. The trouble with visionaries is that they are used to challenging accepted thinking and may be none too keen to head the advice of others. This makes them difficult leaders and, potentially, bullies.

However, it doesn’t necessarily made them bad people to have in an organisation. The Financial Times reports that in a 2006 Harvard Business Review article, Roderick Kramer of Stanford Graduate School of Business researched people’s experience of working under abusive and demanding leaders only to find that “a fair number of individuals reported having positive relationships with intimidating leaders”. In other words, you may not like it, but you can learn something.

These people are useful and can help drive a business forward, but they cannot be allowed free reign to manage people. That way, lawsuits lie. The problem with Uber and British Cycling was that there were insufficient checks and balances to prevent strong leadership morphing into bullying and intimidation.

 

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