Some people lead by example — bad example.
It’s possible to glean valuable information from leaders whose methods seem just plain wrong or ineffective; after all, one of the beautiful things about being human is our ability to learn from the mistakes of others.
Some of these leaders are completely regrettable, while others have good intentions or unique abilities.
Still, that doesn’t mean we want them as our role models.
With that in mind, let’s talk about a few famous leaders we want to be nothing like. What gems can they teach us with their misguided ways?
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The leader whose name is synonymous with over-indulgence is the perfect candidate for a list of famous leaders we’d rather not emulate.
“Caligula of Imperial Rome was one of the worst world leaders,” says Edward Sturm, a digital video producer in New York City. “He spent frivolously on his own luxury and even had Senators' estates confiscated to pay for his spending. He declared that he was an actual god. He made his horse a senator.”
What can we learn from Caligula’s outrageous example? “Ego and leadership do not mix,” says Sturm. “Caligula nearly bankrupted Rome. When you're a leader, it's important that you're responsible, considerate, and thoughtful of others' critiques.”
In other words, not Caligula.
Jose Costa is group president of Charlotte-based Driven Brands, a leading franchise automotive company. He heads the company's Paint & Collision segment, which is comprised of Maaco, CARSTAR and Drive N Style. He wants to be nothing like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“I think a good leader delivers on his/her promises by moving from intentions to results,” says Costa. “Instead, Mr. Chavez came to power in 1999, proposing a lot of changes, many of them socialist in nature, and at the end of nearly 15 years in power he was not able to translate his promises into reality.”
The political, social and economic actions of President Chavez resulted in overspending and price controls, which led to higher poverty, inflation, murder rates and acute corruption.
“Ultimately, Mr. Chavez’s leadership not only deteriorated the country, but forced many professionals into exile and caused future generations to flee,” concludes Costa. “Leadership should go beyond intentions, ideas and vision. It should be about planning, executing and developing alignment with every constituency in our society."
Generating publicity and controversy do not a well-rounded leader make, so we couldn’t help but include a certain famous real estate tycoon turned reality television start turned politician to our list.
Brian Scudamore, Founder and CEO of O2E Brands, wants to be nothing like Donald Trump. His campaign for the presidency aside, Trump’s macho black-and-white style is not for everyone.
“I cringe every time I hear his line, 'You're fired!'" says Scudamore. "His body language when he says it is unmistakable: 'You failed, so you’re a loser.' In Trump’s world missteps are always someone else’s fault. And failure isn’t just bad: it’s humiliating."
Scudamore sees another path to running a business: show vulnerability. Putting yourself out on a limb creates trust in your organization and acknowledging failures directly is the first step to fixing them.
"Always admit your mistakes," continues Scudamore. "Let employees understand that risk-taking and failing are part of the process. It's how you learn and grow. Truly, it's not just how you build success — it’s how you build a company powerful enough to transform an industry."
Kay Whitmore, former CEO of Kodak
Failure to adapt to change is one of the biggest mistakes a leader can make, and it might just be the most notable characteristic of one unfortunate business leader in the 1990s.
“Kodak dominated the consumer and enterprise photo world until 1984, when Fuji began selling film similar to Kodak’s for twenty percent less than Kodak’s price,” explains says William Bauer, Managing Director of Royce Leather Gifts, a family-run business based in New Jersey. “Kay R. Whitmore, the company’s CEO from 1990 to 1993, assumed that its brand would win out over price, and continued to charge premium rates for its film. He was wrong.”
Bauer says that even though Kodak scientists invented the first digital camera and first mega-pixel camera, the company did not commit to the digital world. Though instant cameras, launched in 1987, did help the company remain profitable, Whitmore failed to use the company’s brand and R&D prowess to retain the firm’s lead in the imaging business.
“Kodak failed to adapt to the new reality, or rather it adapted in a half-hearted way,” continues Bauer. The lesson? Embrace change or your company will become a relic.
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Enough time has passed now that the general public and scholars alike present a measured, balanced portrait of this troubled American president, noting not only his fall but his talents and accomplishments as well.
Still, according the The Atlantic, the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s subsequent resignation of the presidency left “a shattered and confused” nation. Nixon’s penchant for lying and for thinking other people were stupid are not good leadership traits. For this reason alone, he deserves a spot on our list.
“It might be blasphemous as an individual in business, but I have always had this different opinion about Steve Jobs,” says Jason Khoo, Marketing Director at Ron Wave Design in Fullerton, California.
“He is seen as an innovator and a man that could squeeze every ounce of talent and effort from his employees,” Khoo adds. “However, something that always rubbed me the wrong way is how far he would push his employees. There are countless stories where he would make designers and engineers cry. He'd make them stay late and make them meet deadlines.”
Jobs was an iconic leader but his employees didn't stay long. A better approach? Have strong and sustainable long-term relationships with your best people.