Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is an extreme example – a really, really extreme example – of a widespread leadership problem. As mobs storm grocery stores and bakeries to avoid starvation, infant mortality rockets because hospitals lack electricity and medicine, people risk and sometimes lose their lives trying to leave the country, which is illegal – and now, we learn from the New York Times, malaria is rampaging through the country – Maduro has taken no effective action against one of the worst humanitarian crises in the Western hemisphere. Why not? Only two possible explanations seem available: He’s either clueless or evil.
Any leader whose behavior seems explainable only by those two options is in deep trouble. Maduro certainly is. His approval rating is 12%, finds a recent poll, and 83% of respondents say they’d vote to remove him given the chance. Opposition leaders have been struggling to organize a recall referendum, which apparently will not take place until next year.
But in fact, many leaders invite that same two-pronged evaluation through behavior on a far smaller scale than Maduro’s. An especially common scenario is a leader’s failure to remove a subordinate who is terrible at his or her job. Everyone who works for that person knows that he or she is damaging the organization and must go, yet the boss doesn’t act. Why not? The leader must be clueless – ignorant of what’s plain to everyone else – or evil – aware of the problem yet unwilling to fix it, for unknown reasons that cannot be good.
That situation can arise with any kind of organizational problem, not just personnel. The leader sometimes deludes himself into thinking he’s got time to act because others aren’t yet aware of the problem. Just the opposite is usually true: In most organizations, the boss is the last to know.
The no-good-explanation quandary arises also when a leader himself or herself can’t supply a better explanation for problematic behavior. It’s a non-partisan issue. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private email server as Secretary of State or Donald Trump’s “Second Amendment people” remark last week, many voters are asking themselves: clueless or evil?
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Leaders who stumble into this trap need to get out as fast as possible. As J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has rightly observed, a leader’s problems “do not age well.” Yet most leaders in this fix just make matters worse. Maduro is a good example. Instead of trying to reverse the course of a tragically failing economy, he’s doubling down on the disastrous policies that led there, installing a Marxist professor from Spain as his unofficial top economic adviser. In that poll cited earlier, 94% of respondents said they think the military is unable to handle food distribution. Maduro responded by elevating the military’s role, replacing the Minister of Interior and Justice with a general. Then, on Saturday, he left his chaotic country to spend the weekend in Cuba celebrating Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday.
Clueless or evil? Any leader who can’t supply a better answer than those two alternatives is, sooner or later, doomed.