Know These Leadership Diseases So You Can Avoid Them

Erik Bernstein crisis leadership


[Editor’s note: The author of this post, Paul Biddle MBE, has 23 years in UK Law Enforcement along with multiple tours of Iraq & Afghanistan. In other words, he knows some things about real world crisis management and crisis leadership. Today he explores issues, or as he calls them diseases, that can reduce the effectiveness of leadership in any organization.]

The late Professor Richard Holmes identified ten diseases of leadership. These are common bad behaviours that leaders can slip into. The good news is that if you’re self-aware, these issues can easily be corrected with some minor adjustments.

However, if left unchecked, they can cause significant damage in the long-term and will be further exacerbated if and when a crisis of any magnitude hits (as it eventually will).

Leadership disease #1: Lack of Moral Courage

Leaders fail to do the right thing even when they know they should or more importantly they have not planned for it or having a crisis and not putting in mitigating system’s afterwards.

Or in many cases simply too afraid to ask or seek help

Leadership disease #2: Failure to recognise that opposition can be loyal

Challenge from subordinates is valuable especially if subordinates can see a crisis looming. It takes a significant amount of moral courage to challenge someone in a leadership position. If this behaviour is encouraged, it promotes a culture of healthy challenge. If it is discouraged, people will not share their concerns or offer ideas for improvement. They are also unlikely to help 100% when the crisis hits…

Loyal dissent is more valuable than destructive consent.

Leadership disease #3: Consent and Evade

Leaders openly agree with the crisis contingency plan but secretly they are unconvinced. They then don’t play their part in supporting the implementation of the plan. This breeds misalignment throughout the organisation.

Leadership disease #4: ‘You don’t need to know that…’

Information is power. Some leaders will try to reinforce their position by holding onto contingency planning information unnecessarily. This reduces the ability for their subordinates to be able to act in a coordinated and disciplined way and more likely act on their own initiative because they lack the wider situational context thus risking the crisis to develop.

Leadership disease #5: ‘I’ve made up my mind…

Leaders lack flexibility and are determined to drive through their contingencies plans regardless of new information or a change in circumstances. This tends to also be when plans are not tested frequently and not with subordinates as well as outside agencies thus mitigating a disaster’s potential impact. Red teaming (the means to challenge the operational planning by providing problems that will mitigate your thinking) is essential.

Leadership disease #6: Looking for the Perfect Solution

Leaders delay making decisions in planning for a crisis because they are waiting for more information which might not come. Often described as ‘analysis paralysis’, the inability to make decisions means subordinates cannot act. Very rarely is all the information available, but generally what has happened to others can and will happen to you, risk assessments and analysis will give a likelihood of what will affect you.

Leadership disease #7: Equating the quality of advice with someone’s position or experience

Wisdom and insight are not necessarily connected to experience or position. Sometimes the least experienced person or someone outside the team can offer the freshest perspective on a problem. These people can be ignored by leaders who over-value experience and positional authority.

Many security and Intelligence agencies will employ new staff to undertake security and crisis assessments as they are a “Fresh pair of Eyes” this gives them an insight into contingency planning and enables you to test old policies or systems

Leadership disease #8: ‘I’m too busy…’

Leaders are so focused on executing routine business that they fail to identify any potential crisis and thus are unable to develop new or test existing contingency plans. When a leader is so focused on what they’re doing, they’re unable to ‘stick their heads up’ and provide the leadership needed.

Testing contingency plans and contingency planning must be part of the routine for the organisation, it should be driven by senior leadership to test the company’s resilience in times of crisis.

Leadership disease #9: ‘I can do your job better than you can…’

When a crisis hits some leaders will drop into their comfort zone and micromanage subordinate leaders. They might have done the job previously and assume that they can do it better than the person currently in the role. This is particularly common in small teams where a leader will often work hard to make up the shortfall in a team target rather than coaching and developing their people to hit the target.

Leadership disease #10: Big Person, cold shadow

Leaders might appear successful to those outside the team but are actually responsible for creating a negative climate within the teams they lead. Testing and developing your contingency plans through exercises will give you the ability to identify negativity within the team


These ten diseases are relatively easy to spot in other people. Identifying them in your own behaviour is far more difficult.

Leaders that are able to create an environment where peers are encouraged to challenge and support and be involved in contingency planning will create opportunities for people to better develop not only their leadership skills but also their ability to deal with any potential crisis that may come their way.

Paul Biddle MBE has recently moved to the US, he is a former UK Government expert in Conflict and Crisis management with the UK Stabilisation Unit which is part of the UK National Security Council, he has 23 years in UK Law Enforcement and served multiple tours of Iraq & Afghanistan as well as providing support to the Haitian police in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake