FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP: When the “bad apple” is the head-apple…

bad-appleWe’ve all heard the expression – “one bad apple can ruin the bunch”, and while that’s easy to imagine and see with team members that just don’t integrate well with the others, the problem becomes ten-fold worse (or more) when that “bad apple” happens to be the leader of the team.

A while back, I joined a multi-year program that was well into the works and, despite several years of effort, still hadn’t completed many deliveries. It was difficult to imagine that, after so many years that little progress had been made – until I had a chance to work with (and supposedly “understudy”) the (self-identified) senior Project Manager on the initiative.


Having benefited from several years of military training and experience with leadership, I’ve come to learn (and apply) several different “styles” – and oddly enough, rarely needed to rely on an “authoritarian” style, except in a few tense situations where it was absolutely essential.

That said, with the many leadership models and styles out there, I think I can confidently say “bullying” isn’t one of them.

From the first meetings I attended with my PM associate, it was clear that everyone was subject to his wrath.

With our vendor meetings, while admittedly a little disorganized, any comment (whether good or bad) was met with sarcasm and negativity. This was equally so with our own technical services and delivery team; they sensed that nothing they did would be right, or satisfy this project manager.

Even internally, among the other Project Managers, any dialogues went quickly to the negative; there was no constructive discussion or brainstorming around alternatives to problems or challenges – but lots of finger pointing and complaining (more on this later).

Key Lessons:

  • Jumping on every comment and situation, good or bad, makes the team hesitant to come forward with any news – since they know they are going to get punished regardless. Effective project management is largely based on communication, and making oneself unapproachable is one of the quickest ways to stop that flow of information.
  • Shelve the negativity; focus on moving forward and finding solutions. Now not everything can always be sunny – but, as pilots and motivational speakers like to say, “your attitude controls your altitude”. Indulge the negativity briefly, to get it out of the way, but then move on; you need to focus on solutions and getting results.


Individual technical specialists and business team members may enjoy the luxury of having well defined responsibilities when it comes to delivering an activity or service, but once you take on the role of “leader” – those lines become somewhat more blurred.

The simple fact is your JOB as leader is to get things done; if that means having to reach outside of your assigned areas of responsibility to help “facilitate” interactions between teams – so be it.

Any complex project or activity involving multiple delivery teams and, in some cases, various vendors and suppliers, will usually require that there be prerequisites, requirements and other sub-deliverables and communication items that need to be shared and/or integrated between the teams.

My associate’s attitude was rather clear; if it’s not a matter of taking a completed deliverable from Vendor A to give to Team B, then he wasn’t interested in hearing about it; “not my job”.

Of course, he also wouldn’t put any effort into at least facilitating the coordination between the two groups either; all while still being the definitive “man in charge” as project manager (with the implication that all activities required his blessing to proceed).

Key Lessons:

  • The “burden of leadership” means that you often need to do more than what is outlined in your specific responsibilities; ultimately every leader’s job is to get the overall task or mission complete – and if you need to go the extra mile, get at it. “Not my job” ISN’T YOUR JOB.
  • Either you are the leader or you aren’t; don’t handicap your teams by not assisting them with inter-team coordination, and then expecting all activities to go through you for approval. If you want them to do it – then definitively tell them so, and don’t take a passive-aggressive stance.
  • Similarly, you can’t do everything – and it’s okay to delegate the details and coordination to the teams themselves – but make sure that’s clearly understood, and be there if they need guidance or even just encouragement.


My personal favorite from this guy; if someone trash talks everyone around you behind their backs, you can be pretty much assured that they are doing the same behind yours.

This guy had nothing good to say about anyone – and was large and liberal with his opinions, whether justified or not. Of course, his comments would eventually make their way to the individuals and teams in question, further poisoning the overall team environment (back to the “bad apple” analogy, but this time affecting entire teams and overall project collaboration).

Key Lessons:

  • Don’t trash talk; plain and simple. If you have an issue with someone, or with a team – take it up with them (or their leadership) directly, to their face, and not within ear shot of the other teams.
  • A certain degree of interpersonal politics are essential to all group human endeavors; if you want people to work with you (and they don’t need to like you to do that), at least have the courtesy to treat them with respect.


This Project Manager was only with the project for a little over a year, but in that time he managed to completely incense the teams and alienate them from each other.

It took nearly 4 months of dedicated (and heroic) efforts after he left to bring the teams back together and collaborating.

Ultimately, leadership is about far more than just giving direction – it really comes down to “leading by example”, and your actions will set the tone for all subsequent interactions between individuals and teams.

As a leader, you do not have the “luxury” of some of the behaviors that we enjoy as individuals to help alleviate stress and vent; you should:

  • Never utilize sarcasm or verbal attacks (even when “just joking”) as your regular means of communication (yes, there are times and places where occasional use is fine – and part of the “fun” that is also essential to building a good team).
  • Never shoot the messenger; don’t over react to bad news or issues. People will avoid bringing them too you if they think they are going to get attacked.
  • Never criticize an under performer publicly. You may have a trusted confidant to vent to from time to time (and those conversations really do need to remain private), but when dealing with an under performer – have that conversation to their face, and in private. Make sure they understand what is wrong/not meeting your expectations and discuss what can be done to improve. In some cases, it could be that they just didn’t understand what your expectations were – and by having that private dialogue, you may just find you can bring the two of you back into alignment without further incidents. It’s hard, if not impossible to do that if you’ve publicly embarrassed that individual or team in front of the others.

The bad apple analogy is very true – but it is intensely magnified if that apple is the “leader”.

As a leader, your conduct needs to be exemplary, as your example will set the tone that ripples throughout the rest of the team.

Author: Stephen Holton, PMP, CISSP, SSGB, ITIL, CD

After completing over twelve years service in the Canadian Armed Forces, Stephen moved to private industry where he was employed as a Director of Information Technology, Director of Operations and CIO for a number of private sector companies before finally electing to become an independent consultant in 2000. Since then he’s served as a management consultant, project/program manager and business analyst/solution architect in a number of industries and organizations - including a big-5 consulting firm. These industries and organizations have included the airline, railway, telecommunications and banking industries, the Canadian and US Governments, as well as mandates in Brazil and Bermuda. Presently Steve lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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