Leadership: Is There Really a Dark Side?
Posted on 19th February 2020 at 15:05
Leadership: Is There Really a Dark Side? The question of what exactly constitutes effective leadership is the focus of near-perpetual debate for scholars and management practitioners. Different opinions and rhetoric, models and theories point to all sorts of traits,...
skills and qualities that are supposed to exemplify “effective leadership”. This can come in many shapes and forms, be it “collective leadership”, “servant leadership”, “transformational leadership”, “authentic leadership”, or “value-driven leadership”, to name but a few.
One of the problems with the development of such theories and practices is that, in the main, they focus on the positive aspects of leadership, and fail to acknowledge that there are potentially far more examples of ineffective leadership. You only need look at the many documented cases of corporate malpractices and economic crises driven, in the main, by ineffectual and narcissistic behaviours which go unchallenged and unchecked.
For many years, management texts, academic research and articles have concentrated on those leadership behaviours and practices that are seen as positive and effective. Thankfully, there is now an increasing acknowledgement of more sensitive, negative leadership behaviours, and the impact these can have on organisations and their people.
These are sensitive because organisations will often not want to publically admit they have made a poor choice in appointing their leaders, especially those in the most senior of positions. After all, such a choice brings risk to stakeholder confidence and business growth. The simple fact remains that negative leadership behaviours do exist. The main question should be “why?”.
As interest in “dysfunctional leadership behaviours” continues to grow, it is not surprising that this stigma related to leadership has been popularised, and is sometimes dramatically referred to as “the dark side” of leadership. When thinking about this, it is important to consider whether there is an actual “dark side” to leadership, or if it is more related to a failing to identify potential narcissistic leadership traits in those appointed to lead.
Numerous tools have emerged to help identify potential derailment behaviours in leaders. These are behaviours that, in given circumstances, will impact on an individual’s ability to adapt their skills and behaviours to meet challenging and changing landscapes. The key question is whether the potential for derailment identified in an individual is the same as those behaviours seen as inherent in “leaders from the dark side”, as many articles suggest them to be one and the same.
I don’t believe this, primarily because if you derail as a leader it does not necessarily follow that you demonstrate narcissistic tendencies. Derailment can be caused by many factors, including heightened periods of stress, a lack of skills development and growth as a leader, or simply a bad fit for a particular role.
I would categorise behaviours related to the dark side of leadership as dysfunctional behaviours, which admittedly can lead to derailment. However, they are also behaviours I would characterise as being more aligned to self-gratification, a heightened level of self-importance and self-pre-occupation, egotism, and a lack of emotional maturity and empathy. These are the behaviours that can have a serious impact on an organisation and its employees, where cultures are often epitomised by fear, blame, collusion, and conforming (famously described as the “toxic triangle” by Padilla et al.). If we are to better understand the dark side of leadership, I believe we need to be looking at those individuals who have demonstrated such characteristics through their actions, as there is a level of complexity beyond that of poor selection, derailment tendencies, and self-gain.
While I have no empirical research to substantiate the following statement, the more I explore leadership, and in particular study leaders past and present, the more I am convinced that leaders are projections of their inner-self. Their narcissistic behaviours are born from prior negative experiences – such as childhood into adulthood, and adulthood into the world of work, or a lack of belonging and emotional maturity. This behaviour then gets projected on to the organisation at large, and the inherent danger is that associated behaviours become the cultural norm.
Whether we choose to refer to this as the dark side of leadership or by some other name is immaterial, however, gaining a better understanding of what drives these behaviours is a key challenge in the development of leaders for the twenty first century and beyond.
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