Insane and In Charge – Identifying Insane Leaders

Perhaps this blog title speaks for itself. At the risk of political incorrectness and with apologies to anyone offended by my choice of words…have you ever worked for or with someone you were sure was crazy?  An insane leader?  If you haven’t, you are among a small and very fortunate minority.

By “crazy” I, of course, don’t mean clinically insane – though there are times when I have considered that to be a real possibility – you see a lot in 45 years in the workforce both in the military and in the private sector.  For my purposes here, crazy just means acting irrationally, reacting inappropriately, or failing to demonstrate the first clue as to what their job entails and the importance of their leadership, guidance, direction, and influence on others.

You know…crazy!

For example, some traits of insane leaders that you may recognize:

  • Immediately blames others for a problem or failure, well before important facts are evident or understood
  • Terminates employees without the least due process when due process is both warranted and appropriate
  • Treats others boorishly in public or in private
  • Expects you to do something illegal or unethical
  • Doesn’t return calls or respond to emails or texts within a reasonable timeframe – “goes dark”
  • Strictly adheres to a rule without ever questioning its validity, appropriateness, or purpose and never considers seeking a change
  • Purposely and publicly embarrasses another person – especially someone junior
  • Causes a subordinate to cry over a work-related infraction
  • Always has to be right
  • Eagerly waits to say: “I told you so.”
  • Engages in rumor mongering at the workplace
  • Overworks subordinate staff unnecessarily
  • Changes direction without consideration of the impact on others
  • Doesn’t explain what they want while expecting others to figure it out

What is to be done about these leaders or clients? How do you deal with them or avoid them if possible, and how do you avoid BECOMING one of them?

More on these questions in a moment.

First, we need to recognize the symptoms of the insane leader.

They are not always obvious and not consistently present. They are, however, manifested under pressure. When the going gets tough, the crazy leader gets going. Pressure is not their friend and certainly not yours when they prove unable to handle it properly and appropriately. They start to react quickly, not respond deliberately. They say exactly what is on their minds, not considering how that may be received and the unintended consequences of it being said. People who “tell it like it is” are really telling us WHO they are. Pressure strips away the façade and exposes the true nature of people, especially in the workplace, where feelings are typically less considered than within a family setting. I’ve long considered that the “I tell it like it is” people are really just lazy. Sometimes you can’t say, “you’ve got an ugly baby.” It’s easy, requires no thought about consequences to someone’s feelings, or you’re soon to end the relationship with that person, and it may even be true – but it’s just laziness to say it as it is laziness to apply a similar indifference in the workplace.

My experiences with these leaders are varied. One of my first came about midway through my Army career. My boss’s boss was a full colonel who stood about 6’4’’ to my 5’9’’ and he knew all about his height advantage. Additionally, he was overbearing and mean spirited – and they were his good qualities. He disliked people in general and subordinates especially. He was sure he was smarter and more able than anyone else, yet, interestingly, he often proved otherwise with his lack of understanding of basic issues and refusal to prepare for briefings and discussions with more senior officers and officials.  I think he was so convinced of his invulnerability, he felt that he needed to do nothing but show up. He was wrong, of course. This man who relished embarrassing others, hurting others, and taking credit for the work of others was eventually cut down to size – and in a rather public way. Handcuffs were involved as he was “escorted” out of the building by local police officers for domestic violence. He escaped prosecution somehow, and he soon retired, but not until he had built a career on the backs of so many others. He was and is reviled by those who knew him and worked around him, but that is little consolation for the pain he caused for so long. That was nearly 35 years ago, and I still remember specific encounters with this man. If his goal was to make a lasting impression, he was successful.

I’ve had my share of similar leaders and clients over the last 20+ years in the private sector, too. In my experience, I found it even more prevalent on “the outside.” Perhaps this is a result of the playing field. Risks are high (financial, professional) and competition for work and revenue is keen. Some may feel they have little or no time to be nice, when what they define as forthrightness is a faster means to an end. Anyway – I have dozens of examples to share sometime, but not here and not now. I suspect you have as many or more than I do, and that’s unfortunate. We deserve better from our leaders, and certainly, we hope for better from our clients.

As you think about these people in your life, resolve to never be like them. That will be your legacy, not theirs, but they will have served some useful purpose after all.

  • Find and develop empathy
  • Remember your own past experiences and how some encounters made you feel
  • Be available
  • Be present
  • Be sociable (fake it if you have to)
  • Be aware of the impact of workload on others
  • Allow for rest and relaxation for those in your charge
  • Avoid unreasonable timelines and due dates
  • Understand that your priorities may not be the same as others
  • Show gratitude
  • Be encouraging
  • Have respect for others
  • Remember that just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD

We can certainly learn as much or more from a bad example than a good one. Don’t be remembered as a bad example.

An early version of this article appeared in my book, “Watering Rocks: How to Fail and Succeed as a Leader.” It has been updated for this article.

Dave served a full 22-year career as an Army officer and followed that with more than 2 decades as a senior executive in several consulting firms in the Northern Virginia area. He has managed and led thousands of soldiers, Army civilians, and private sector employees in more than 43 years in leadership positions. He speaks and writes about leadership, relationship management, career transition, and keys to success.  READ MORE

David S. Maurer

Lieutenant Colonel, USA (Ret.) , Project Management Professional (PMP)



Books By Dave

Watering Rocks - How to Fail and Succeed as a Leader - Book by David S. Maurer
Leadership Essentials - How to Lead with Passion, Pride and Purpose - Book by David S. Maurer