Harvard Expert: The 5 Types of Bosses You Never Want to Work for—Or Become

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No one wants to become a horrible boss, let alone work for one — and a Harvard expert has a new guide for identifying and avoiding them.

Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former CEO of medical technology company Medtronic, has spent almost 20 years studying leadership failures in the workplace. Bosses are inevitably doomed when they lose sight of their "true north," George tells CNBC Make It, referring to their deeply held beliefs, values and purpose as leaders.

Those traits help guide people to make good decisions and lead effectively, he explains: "[They're] what makes you authentic, and people naturally want to follow authentic leaders."

Losing your sight of your values has nothing to do with how smart you are, George notes. It happens when you get distracted by extrinsic motivations like money, fame and power — all at the expense of your moral compass.

Last week, George and co-author Zach Clayton published a new book, "True North: Leading Authentically in Today's Workplace, Emerging Leader Edition." The book identifies five different archetypes of bosses that you never want to become or work for, because they've lost their "true north" in some way.

Here's what they are, and why George says those bosses are bound to fail:

1. Imposters

Imposters fight relentlessly to get to the top of organizations, "buying" their spot with charm and appealing ideas, George says. But once they get to the top, they have no idea how to effectively lead because they lack a sense of self-awareness.

These bosses don't have an accurate depiction of their own character, actions or feelings — and they struggle to recognize how other people see them, George says. That's a problem: Self-awareness helps bosses understand what's going right and wrong in their leadership. It shows them how their actions may be helping or hurting employees, and what they can improve to lead them more effectively.

Take WeWork founder and ex-CEO Adam Neumann as an example. Neumann won over investors with charm and charisma, ultimately raising $10.4 billion from conglomerate holding company SoftBank. But he didn't have the self-awareness to effectively lead the company day-to-day, George says.

Instead, Neumann's erratic management style harmed employees, and his efforts to keep expanding the company with little planning led to WeWork's first failed attempt to go public in 2019, George says.

2. Rationalizers

Rationalizers always want to appear like they're always on top of everything they do, George says. They're also "masters of denial" who are never willing to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes — instead rationalizing missteps and wrongdoing by blaming others.

George's go-to example is Rajat Gupta, the former managing partner of global consulting firm McKinsey. George even knows Gupta personally: They served together on three boards, including Goldman Sachs in 2008.

In 2012, Gupta was sentenced to two years in federal prison after sharing inside information about a $5 billion investment Warren Buffett made in Goldman to Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of hedge fund management firm Galleon Group. Rajaratnam used that information to made insider trades, generating $90 million in illicit profits.

Gupta has since maintained his innocence, blaming Rajaratnam for making him a "victim" in the scandal, George says. The stance has hurt Gupta's ability to lead effectively since getting out of prison, he adds: It's proof that he can't, or won't, learn from his mistakes.

3. Glory seekers

Glory seekers define their worth based on the amount of money they rake in, how much positive press they get and how many prominent titles they can accumulate, George says. They prioritize personal fame and fortune over building organizations with lasting value, and are never truly satisfied with what they have, he adds.

George points to Greg Lindberg, the founder of private equity firm Global Growth. Lindberg started with a successful strategy for acquiring broken businesses and growing their revenue. Ultimately, that wasn't good enough for him — so he began acquiring insurance businesses with the goal of loaning their assets to other businesses he owned, a process limited by laws in multiple states.

In 2020, Lindberg was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, after attempting to bribe North Carolina's insurance commissioner to bend those laws in his favor.

4. Loners

Loners — not to be confused with introverts — avoid forming close relationships and support networks, says George.

They think they can do everything on their own, and often choose to reject feedback or advice they receive from employees, board members and mentors. As a result, they're prone to mistakes and setting their organizations up for failure, George says.

One example is Dick Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, formerly the nation's fourth-largest investment bank. In 2008, Fuld's associates spent months warning him about the deep trouble his bank was in: It needed to recapitalize, or essentially replace the debt it racked up with more capital, according to George.

The U.S. Treasury Secretary at the time, Hank Paulson, even weighed in with similar warnings. But Fuld was a loner who didn't listen to others, so he failed to act, George says. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy later in 2008.

5. Shooting stars

Shooting stars focus entirely on getting ahead, says George. They often jump to the next job position, organization or goal without taking the time to learn from their mistakes.

George says the strategy helps them move up rapidly, but it them unfit to lead. They end up "crashing and burning, fast," he says.

One example: Uber founder Travis Kalanick's quick rise and fall. Kalanick's tunnel-vision focus on getting ahead, which meant prioritizing his ride-sharing app's growth and profits, initially led to rapid success. It also enabled his stunning downfall just eight years after he founded the company.

By 2017, Uber was engulfed in controversy over the toxic workplace culture he fostered, sexual harassment complaints and regulators claiming that Uber broke transportation laws. Kalanick resigned that year, under demands from five of Uber's major investors.

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