Rob Ford and the challenge of ousting ‘cockroach leaders’

November 19, 2013, 5:59 PM UTC
Rob Ford

FORTUNE — Crack-smoking Toronto mayor Rob Ford has been called “out-of-control,” a runaway train, and a “one-man episode of ‘Cops.’” Add this depiction to the mix: Rob Ford: cockroach leader. Scandal upon scandal tramples his reputation yet his mayorship will not die.

The Toronto mayor first faced allegations of smoking crack in May, but he brushed them off as “ridiculous.” When he finally admitted to using the illicit drug, he said a “drunken stupor” was to blame. Since then, a video surfaced of him belligerently yelling “I’m going to kill that fucking guy,” referring to an unidentified person, and on Monday, as the Toronto city council voted to diminish his power, he tackled a female councilor in a scene reminiscent of a linebacker barreling into a bewildered, hapless cheerleader.

In addition to providing tabloid fodder, Ford’s antics have impaired the city’s operations, with official matters taking a backseat to the controversy. The Toronto city council is handcuffed in trying to oust Ford from office. The city has no process for impeachment or recall, and the mayor can’t be forced to step down on legal grounds unless he’s convicted of a crime — he hasn’t even been charged — and sentenced to jail.

Ford, for his part, is refusing to resign as mayor of Canada’s largest city. “I was elected to do a job and that’s exactly what I will continue doing,” he has said.

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Ford’s face-palm behavior and moral misjudgments are hyperbole when it comes to bad management, but he does represent a serious issue that many organizations face: an ineffective leader who just won’t quit.

While there are plenty of scandalized politicians — Mark Stanford, Kwame Kilpatrick, Rod Blagojevich — few business leaders fit the Rob Ford mold. It’s safe to say that public behavior mirroring Ford’s wouldn’t get past most companies’ zero-tolerance drug policies and codes of conduct. But crack pipes and murderous threats aside, even a watered-down Rob Ford equivalent in the C-suite is hard to identify. American Apparel founder and chief executive officer Dov Charney with his many sex scandals, is one of the few that come to mind. That’s because politicians, as public servants, are subject to more scrutiny than business heads, and because the boards of directors that hire CEOs also have the power to fire them.

The public, on the other hand, votes politicians into office and then hopes the new mayor, senator, or governor doesn’t screw up too much before the next election. Plus, boards of directors monitor companies’ bottom lines, which often reflect a CEO’s effectiveness, and will fire a CEO the second they think he’s underperforming, says Lynn Wooten, clinical associate professor of strategy and management at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

Ineffective managers farther down the chain of command, meanwhile, can be just as harmful as those at the top. There are legal hurdles to firing a poor performer, and even after those are cleared, unions, workplace politics, or corporate governance may keep a higher-up from firing an unproductive manager. “Part of being leader,” Wooten says, “is asking ‘how do I develop a bad performer that I want to fire?’”

That question can be answered, Wooten says, through career coaching or developmental activity that’s pursued within a set time frame and with the understanding that the poor performer will find a new job if the problem isn’t fixed when the clock runs out, Wooten says. “When you’re dealing with someone who you cannot fire and who won’t step down, you have to make it a teachable moment,” she says.

Another way to keep ineffective leaders from gaining and maintaining power: reacting quickly to poor performance. “What a strong leader does is nip bad behavior in the bud. Rather than letting it fester, they gently give people negative feedback,” says Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

If only that could have been done in Ford’s case. His crack smoking admission in early November was the culmination of months of controversy. In March, Ford denied wrongdoing in a conflict-of-interest fundraising case. That same month, he called an accusation that he grabbed a former rival’s rear end “absolutely, completely false.” And in August, after a video surfaced of the mayor reading while driving, he said that “yeah, probably,” he’d multitasked in such a manner because he’s “busy.”

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Unlike late-night TV show jokes about Ford’s antics, a bad manager in business is no laughing matter. The 2013 State of the American Workplace report by Gallup estimated that poor managers are creating active disengagement that costs the United States an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion each year.

That said, there’s no epidemic of incompetent bosses, says Sutton, because most businesses have installed mechanisms for getting rid of ineffective leaders. Having such a tool, Sutton says, “is the definition of having a functional society.” Except, apparently, in Toronto.