Is your founder a Rob Ford?

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By Jeff Campbell leadership-370x229

The behaviours and acts of Rob Ford that are being amplified by media outlets around the world are comical at times, misguided for certain, illegal and problematic. But are they really problematic in terms of the job he is to perform or simply so opposite to the behaviours we expect of a leader that we immediately deem them problematic? Don’t get me wrong — Rob Ford is definitely behaving inappropriately. If, as Ford maintains, he continues to perform his job and is producing better results than his peers and predecessors, should we attempt to distance the personal behaviours from his role and track record as a leader?

What I wish to focus on here is not the sordid and incomprehensible behaviours of the mayor of a truly world-class, and Canada’s largest city, Toronto. Rather, I wish to shine the light on start-up leaders who behave badly.

Perhaps you have seen this before in your start-up? Your founding CEO is sometimes referred to as a visionary, super-smart, passionate, driven and so on. She likely commands a lot of respect and admiration for what she has accomplished and the opportunity she has created for you, your co-workers and investors. However, there are episodes of bad behaviour.

They may be outbursts like sprinting across the board room floor, ostensibly running to the aid of an ally while bowling over an old lady. Or perhaps something less egregious but every bit disruptive like grand-standing, disagreeing with or simply ignoring many things the board or management team prescribes.

Maybe the behaviours manifest as a loose canon uttering obscenities and using vulgar phrases to defend himself which only make the situation worse. Or he is simply wasting precious media exposure by drifting off-message and saying whatever they think best at the time.

Hopefully your leader is NOT offending the very people that he relies on to get the job done through favouritism, sexually suggestive comments, erratic firing and hiring or cavorting with folks who are clearly on the wrong side of the law. Although, he may be creating a similar effect among employees, managers and directors through whatever bad behaviours are being observed.

This is where it becomes problematic. Absurd and disruptive behaviour prevents progress, wastes time, erodes confidence and eventually kills motivation.

How do you know you have one of these leaders? Even if she smokes crack, you likely won’t know about it because she would be discreet about such things and they may not be in the public eye. There are many other indicators however. Answering a few short questions may indicate you have one of these. Questions like:

  • Do you and your peers spend an increasing amount of time discussing the leader’s actions and dwelling on the negative consequences?
  • Are you unable to predict the leader’s reactions and moods or is the team walking on eggshells to prevent bad behaviour when he is around?
  • Is there a clear dividing line between the few who are the leader’s favourites and the rest?
  • Is the word “dysfunctional” finding its way into conversations about the board, the management team or the individual.

There are many other indicators but these help you get the idea that no matter what the individual’s behaviour, if over time it is creating a dysfunctional organization, it’s bad!

We hold our leaders, especially political leaders, to a higher standard than most. This is not by accident. We need to look up to these people as we are motivated by them, develop confidence to help us weather storms and most importantly, so we can trust them to lead us to success.

It’s not a single transgression or lapse in judgment that is at issue. We have a tendency to forgive and forget these with sayings like, “We are all human” and “We all make mistakes.”

As it is with Rob Ford in Toronto, if the persistence of these bad behaviours manifest in dysfunction and an inability to proceed in a unified fashion,  it will certainly increase costs significantly. even if it doesn’t cause the start-up to fail outright,

Most boards will react to a scenario like this in a similar way that Toronto City Council is. Often, boards will attempt to put the disruptor in a box, justifying this move by citing the value the individual can bring. This could be demotion, stripping of power, narrowing of duties and so on. In my experience, this simply allows the negative influence to persist to a point where the board deems the disruptions more harmful than the value the person is contributing.

I have fired founders in the past. In hindsight, I now know I have acted later than I should have. There is a clear path of destruction that a founders and leaders can leave in their wake by behaving badly. Often they remain ignorant of the problems they create and deny it in spite of being told. This should be the final warning bell.

Unlike the laws governing public officials, it is possible for a board to fire a founding CEO with or without cause (some jurisdictions excepted). It is incumbent on the directors and other senior leaders to identify the impact, confirm dysfunction, observe that it is persistent, understand that it won’t change, and then act decisively.

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