9 Examples of Bad Leaders in Pop Culture

Home » Resources » Bad LeadersUpdated: October 05, 2021

You found our list of fictional examples of bad leaders.

Bad leaders are ineffective managers who create stressful or toxic workplaces. For example, Michael Scott from The Office and Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. We listed pop culture icons because it is easier to explore the flaws of fictional figures rather than get into the politics of real people’s poor management. The examples of bad leadership in this list explore a wide range of common problems in flawed leadership.

Many of these figures lack essential leadership skills and show signs of bad managers

This list includes:

  • famous bad leaders
  • bad leaders in movies
  • bad leaders in television
  • historical bad leaders
  • traits of ineffective leaders

Here we go!

Note: This list may contain spoilers for shows or movies.

List of examples of bad leaders (fictional)

Here are examples of the worst leaders in film and television alongside breakdowns of what qualities made them bad bosses.

1. Michael Scott – The Office

Michael Scott is one of the most notorious bad leaders in television history. He constantly makes unprofessional and inappropriate comments to employees, corporate officers, vendors, and clients, and often fails to read the room and notice the discomfort he causes. Scott is overly concerned with being liked and tries too hard to be friends with his employees. His sense of humor is offensive, and his sense of boundaries almost non-existent. He wastes company and employee time with needless meetings and ridiculous events. For that matter, he does not seem aware or concerned about the many ways his staff misuses company time and resources, such as the endless series of pranks Jim plays on Dwight on the clock. Scott puts his staff in danger on many occasions. Not only does he ignore and rebel against HR policies, he is outwardly hostile to HR representative Toby. The list of Michael Scott’s managerial flaws could go on.

Scott does not set a positive example for his staff to follow, nor does he model appropriate workplace behavior. It is hard to reprimand employees for rule breaking when the boss is such a beacon of unprofessionalism.

Michael Scott redeems himself by providing genuine care and support for his employees  and occasionally showing moments of skill and confidence. However, these moments of positivity are still not quite enough to make that “World’s Best Boss” mug true.

2. Miranda Priestly – The Devil Wears Prada

Miranda Priestly is one of the most notable bad leaders in movies. The title of the movie literally calls her the devil and clues viewers in that this fashionable female is far from a warm, friendly leader. While Miranda was an accomplished and formidable professional who managed to reach and keep a place at the top of her field, she was far from a supportive boss. Miranda created an environment of competitiveness among employees and pitted them against each other. Her office was a place that hindered collaboration and encouraged backstabbing. She stood in the way of her staff’s professional growth and at one point sabotaged one of her most loyal employee’s promotions so that she could keep her own job. Also, work life balance was non-existent for her staff. Though the demands of the industry were to blame for some of the long hours, Miranda also seems to take pleasure in tying up Andy’s time with meaningless tasks as a form of hazing.

3. Peter – The Great

Peter the Great is one of the most notorious historical bad leaders. The real emperor was effective, yet tyrannical and cruel. His fictional TV counterpart is similarly savage, yet also incompetent. Peter is the product of nepotism, and never had to work to reach a high position. He is narcissistic and refuses to consider outside opinions. At one point, Catherine convinces him to agree with her good idea by insisting that she heard him mutter the plan in his sleep. He is against progress. He does not understand strategy nor politics, yet insists on calling the shots to show that he is in charge. He makes decisions based on self-interest and emotion, instead of what is good for the people. Peter rules through fear and punishes those who go against him by demoting or eliminating them. His closest advisors are too afraid to tell him no or express a different opinion, and instead praise him constantly, no matter how bad the idea or act or how disastrous the results. The environment around Peter is toxic, and his reports eventually rebel and try to remove Peter from power.

4. All the bosses – Horrible Bosses

The title of the movie tells viewers what to expect in terms of leadership, however Horrible Bosses impressively runs the gamut of poor management possibilities. Kevin’s Spacey’s character is aggressive, sociopathic, and quick to anger, a boss who rules by fear and tyranny. Colin Farrell is the son of the deceased owner of a family business who blatantly does not care about any of the employees or the business he has inherited. Meanwhile, Jennifer Anniston’s character repeatedly crosses boundaries and makes inappropriate comments and gestures even after being asked to stop. The main characters of the movie go to extreme lengths to get rid of these bosses. However, in real life, employees often quit, perform worse, or try to deal with it and become miserable, none of which are ideal options.

5. Michael – The Good Place

Evil-turned-good architect Michael from The Good Place shows many traits of ineffective leaders. His plans often fail and he flounders to think up last minute solutions. He has trouble standing up to his bosses and peers. He visibly crumbles under pressure, and his teammates have to pick up the slack to cover up these breakdowns. His ego is fragile, and he has a hard time admitting when others are better than him. He is often dishonest to his teammates. In fact, he starts the series literally sabotaging and torturing those in his care. After his eventual change of heart, Michael becomes overprotective and overly involved. Instead of trusting his team to succeed on their own merits, he interferes and accidentally undoes their progress.

Though his intentions are good, he is not a natural boss. While Michael evolves into a team player, he never really becomes a better leader. Eleanor steps into that role, and other members of the group show leadership potential at critical moments as well. This arc is not necessarily a bad thing, as it shows that sometimes the people in power are not the most capable, and occasionally the best way to be a leader is to let the better fit for a job take over.

6. Annalise Keating – How to Get Away With Murder

Annalise Keating is a powerful and accomplished lawyer, but an unethical boss. Her students compete for the chance to be her interns, however those who make her inner circle compromise their morals and careers in her service. Her associates lie and steal and even kill to protect Annalise. While one could argue that the initial murder of the series is an accident and Annalise does not outright order some of the more reprehensible acts, yet she does push her people to win at any cost. Leaders have a responsibility to act with integrity, however Annalise crosses legal and ethical boundaries long before the show’s first murder. Leaders should inspire followers to become their best selves, yet every employee who enters Annalise’s orbit winds up committing terrible acts and becoming dishonest and manipulative.

7. Mitch Kessler and Fred Micklen – The Morning Show

Mitch Kessler from The Morning Show is a chillingly realistic example of workplace sexual harassment. Though Mitch is charismatic and well-liked by most of his peers, he is also a predator. He has affairs with several female colleagues, some of whom are naive young women who he grooms. In one instance, he asks that an ex-lover be transferred to another team. In one of the show’s most harrowing scenes, he makes sexual advances on a coworker while she cries over the stress of covering a mass shooting. Mitch does not seem to care about the after-affects of his affairs nor the potential impact on these women’s careers. Nor does he realize the uncomfortable situations and stress these dalliances create for other crew members. Kessler refuses to take accountability for his actions or see himself as a perpetrator, consistently denies any wrongdoing and avoids self-reflection.

Executives are complicit in Mitch’s behavior. The network leaders are so afraid of losing Mitch’s talent, that for years they enable and cover up his abuse. Fred Micklen is possibly the worst offender. When a female employee tries to file a report against Mitch Fred offers her a promotion, while implying that she will lose her career and be blacklisted if she chooses to pursue a formal accusation. Fred is more concerned about protecting profits and his own legal standing and reputation than protecting his employees. Sadly, looking the other way and subtly bullying victims into silence is a common tactic in many workplaces where abuse is prevalent. Good leaders initiate change when such allegations come to light. Bad leaders seek to continue the status quo at any cost.

Here is a guide to handling office romance as a manager.

8. Don Draper – Mad Men

Don Draper was a brilliant adman, and a solid mentor to Peggy Olson. However boss of the year he was not. Though Draper could inspire his colleagues by giving stirring speeches to the staff or nailing client presentations, he did little in the way of running a team effectively. Don made rash decisions without consulting his colleagues first, and acted in self-interest on many occasions. He alienated several clients and coworkers. His personal life was a mess and he was no role model. Colleagues who admired Don’s professional success often tried to emulate his behavior, with disastrous results. Don failed to express proper appreciation and gratitude for his staff, and took out his anger on team members. In one instance, he even threw money at Peggy’s face. Not to mention, he drinks at work and takes a few too many naps in his office. You could argue that Don is a product of his era, however there are characters on the show who exhibit more leadership potential, yet do not get the same opportunities. Don Draper is a good example of the wisdom that great talent does not necessarily translate into great leadership.

9. Bill Lumbergh – Office Space

Bill Lumbergh is one of the most famous bad leaders in movies. He is the stereotypical portrait of a terrible corporate boss. He engages in one-sided, superficial conversations and does not listen to staff’s responses. He gives orders passive-aggressively by starting statements with “If you could go ahead and….” or “I’m going to need you to…” and ending them with “that would be great” or “mmmkay?” He has no respect for workers’ personal lives and regularly asks the protagonist to work the weekend at the last minute. Perhaps worst of all, Bill Lumbergh is a micromanager who gives his staff busywork and pesters them about meaningless details like missed memos, forgotten cover sheets, and TPS reports.

Check out this guide to dealing with micromanager bosses.

Final Thoughts

There is no shortage of bad bosses in pop culture, because terrible managers make for entertaining television or movies. However, these horrible leaders are much less amusing when encountered in real life. While many of the examples on this list are extreme, the underlying behaviors and attitudes are also sadly common.

Many managers are talented and competent professionals but flawed leaders. These bosses can be clueless, overly or underly confident, self-serving, and at times, downright abusive. By understanding the qualities of bad leaders and identifying examples in the media, leaders can have more honest conversations, reflect on their own management styles from a safe distance, and strive to be better leaders. Bad or bumbling fictional bosses can serve as cautionary tales that prevent real-life managers from making mistakes.

Next, check out this list of ways to create work friendships and this guide to motivating remote employees.

FAQ: Bad leaders

Here are answers to common questions about bad leaders.

What are the qualities of bad leaders?

Qualities of bad leaders include micromanagement, manipulation, boundary-crossing, absence of empathy, lack of listening, excessive anger, encouragement of unethical actions, low emotional intelligence, and inability to deal with high pressure situations. There are many traits of ineffective leaders that can make workplaces toxic and stressful.

Who are some examples of bad leaders in the media?

Some examples of bad leaders in media include Michael Scott from The Office, Bill Lumbergh from Office Space, and Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada.

How can watching bad bosses in movies help you become a better leader?

Watching bad bosses in movies can help managers identify ineffective and harmful traits in their own leadership style. Audiences can criticize bad movie or TV bosses more easily than employees can critique their bosses. This setup gives managers distance and time to analyze their own behavior, and adjust their actions without being directly called out.

P.S: Press "CTRL + D" or "Command + D" to bookmark this page - we update it often.

Share this article:

avatar
Author: Angela Robinson

Team building content expert. Angela has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and worked as a community manager with Yelp to plan events for businesses.

LinkedIn icon
Young woman with headphones, doing activities with colleagues on a Zoom call.

100% Online Team Building Activities

We run world class online team building events that remote teams love. Rated 5 Stars.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Best Virtual Team Building

To be a little obvious, teambuilding.com is a team building company.

And a darn good one... we hire brilliant people, provide extensive training, and develop one of a kind experiences.

In 2021, we are running virtual events for teams all over the world.

And when there isn't a global pandemic, we do local activities too.