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The Dark Side of Leadership

By Graham Williams

“A fish rots from the head”.
Old proverb

leadership-styleSomeone once said ‘In a septic tank, as in a big corporation, the biggest turds float to the top’. During times when we hold leadership reigns, we have to be aware of lapsing into behaviours that compromise our own values, damage others. And we all have feet of clay. An effective leadership style demands that we are fully aware of the lurking dark side of leadership.

A personal story about a shortcoming in effective leadership style.

I was involved with a local Operations Company (of one of the world's top multi-national petroleum companies) using one of the world's top consulting firms in order to undertake massive re-engineering.

The consultants introduced tactics designed to manipulate fast change and compliance in order to force through the change at a frenetic pace. 'Take a jerk to lunch' was one tactic. Another was to 'demonise' and make outcasts of any with influence who were not 'with it'. Still another was the deliberate withholding of information so that very few could see the bigger picture.

During times when we hold leadership reigns, we have to be aware of lapsing into behaviours that compromise our own values and damage others.

An HR manager said: 'Throughout this entire process we had only one suicide' (!).

London Head Office was impressed to the extent that the consulting group soon found itself doing the same work in Thailand, Brazil, and other OpCos. Presumably more successes were claimed. But as LinkedIn connection, neurologist John Barbuto rightly asks: “What is the rest of the story?”

Culture in the local OpCo at the time was about agreement, avoiding conflict, sharing successes but not failures. Fertile ground to increase fear and self-preservation factors by the use of the tactics in question. No doubt exacerbated by the stress accompanying such massive change.

Years after completion of the exercise some of these tactics were still embedded in the culture. The OpCo never fully recovered. Although the re-engineering project was hailed as a huge local success on the basis of 'costs to be saved', these costs were never fully realised.

Sadly such leadership behaviour so easily leads to lasting negative damage to the organisation and its members. The untold story ending in disaster.

Without an effective leadership style, long term damage to organisations and their members can be horrific.

There is always a good chance that the power-holder’s personality characteristics, by a process of osmosis, become part of the organisation’s culture. This is the true danger of dark leadership.

When cultural norms, habits, responses and behaviour become second nature, individuals are no longer consciously aware that they are behaving in a dysfunctional way, or that they are responsible for their own behaviour.

Extremely cohesive groups, oriented around a strong leader, will ignore or punish dissenting opinions.

Group pathology is absorbed by and entrenched in individuals.

Scott Peck explains that group leaders in all times and places have routinely bolstered group cohesiveness by whipping up the group's hatred for 'foreigners', or 'the enemy', the outsider.

In his book People of the Lie, he relays the My Lai incident in South Vietnam in 1968, where members of the United States Army killed 500 to 600 unarmed villagers. Years later, he was appointed by the Army Surgeon General as chairman of a committee given the task of making recommendations about undertaking psychological research - to understand and help prevent such incidents in future.

The committee's recommendations were rejected for fear of embarrassing the status quo. The organisation, the US Army, protected itself.

Scott Peck explains lucidly that group pathology was at play even though each killing was an individual act. He points out that different levels, as well as different departments within a hierarchy, can experience a 'fragmentation of conscience', especially under conditions of stress.

This 'fragmentation of conscience' may be motivated by fear and self-preservation and can result in:

  • Avoiding taking responsibility for what the wider organisation is doing.
  • Blaming other departments, or overall policies or 'management' for what is happening.

This happens when people are conditioned by group-thinking, a frightening possibility.

  • IBM: In telling the IBM story in his book Big Blues, Paul Carrol cites the case of Don Estridge. He was a rebel; a non-conformist in dress, personality and management style, who ushered IBM into the new technology personal computer market in the early 1980s. IBM at the time believed the market to be far too small to be of any interest to them. Don Estridge's committed development team of 13 worked against the clock. Against incredible odds, their unprecedented counter-culture approach yielded amazing results. They delivered US$1-billion in the first year. However, Estridge's sudden success, with its accompanying visibility and publicity bred enmity among other IBM executives. Their inability to embrace diversity evolved into a fierce jealousy that guaranteed Estridge would eventually fall. He lost favour and was effectively side-lined, overpowered by the bureaucracy, before his untimely death.
  • BP: In a 5 year period to 2007, BP were charged with no less than 760 safety violations, were found to be grossly negligent in a number of instances. When the Gulf of Mexico disaster inevitably occurred, “numerous investigations would place the blame for the explosion on BP’s cutting of costs, inattention to safety, and overly aggressive attitude toward extracting oil from difficult-to-reach reserves”. BP continued its arrogant tradition of “say a lot, do little”. To the outside world its CEO’s leadership style appeared effective, but inside a cancer was at work. Psychologist Irving Janis describes this sort of group-think: “When certain conditions are present … groups quickly reach consensus decisions with amazing disregard for obvious warning signs that they are on the wrong track. Extremely cohesive groups, oriented around a strong leader, will ignore or punish dissenting opinions”.3 It seems that forced conformity, fragmentation of conscience, diffused responsibility were all at play here.
  • I’ve recently consulted to an organisation where people avoid offering constructive criticism, steer away from potential conflict for fear of ‘rocking the boat’. Their conformity and diffusion of responsibility are in effect defence-mechanisms. The staff work to rule. This cultural impediment is fed by stress resulting from high workloads and deadline pressures. The possibility of such organisational ‘illness’ should not be underestimated.

Babiak and Hare have contributed to studies of the corporate psychopathic phenomenon

In South Africa we may be experiencing low-growth economic times, but S.A.’s performance in terms of corruption, crime, job creation, alleviation of poverty, care for the environment, hampering of private enterprise, quality of education (the World Economic Forum recently placed South Africa 132 out of 144) – must give rise to alarm about the leaders we have chosen, and our own acceptance of things.

Unsavoury Leadership Characteristics

Tyrants may come across as ‘good guys’ and reach the top. They portray an effective leadership style. They appear charming and charismatic on the outside, but emotionally blunted and dead inside.

“…one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” 5 (Shakespeare: Hamlet 1.5. 108)

Manfred Kets de Vries explored the dark side of leadership. He assessed personality types and traits, character disorders, and drag-down behaviours. The main characteristics displayed by unsavoury leaders are:

  • Paranoid.
  • Obsessive-compulsive.
  • Histrionic.
  • Dependent.
  • Depressive.
  • Antisocial.
  • Sadistic.
  • Masochistic.
  • Passive-aggressive.

In the parable of Stripe and Yellow, by Trina Paulus, two caterpillars are climbing the caterpillar pillar:

“Stripe avoided Yellow as much as possible,
but one day there she was, blocking the only way up.
‘Well, I guess it’s you or me’, he said, and stepped squarely on her head’.

Personally, I find that a combination of the following is particularly dangerous:

  • Narcissistic. This leader has a need to be admired. Self-love, self-interest and gain is the goal bar any cost. They have an uncanny ability to manipulate and abuse others.
  • Machiavellian. This leader will play a game of deception, manipulation, cunning and duplicity in order to achieve their goals.
  • Sociopathic. This leader is also manipulative, beguiling and convincing. They have no emotional attachment, no conscience, or moral compass with regards to right or wrong, principles and values.

Hidden in the shadows even when in the limelight

Is he a lamb? His skin is surely lent him, For he’s inclin’d as is the ravenous wolves.
Who cannot steal a shape that means deceit?
(Shakespeare: King Henry VI, Part 2 3.1.77-79)

Like Aesop’s proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, you can easily be snared by the charm of a narcissistic, Machiavellian, sociopathic boss.

It’s easy with hindsight to label a Hitler, a Gadhaffi, an Exxon or BP CEO.

How can you identify this villain when you’re immersed in everyday work. Like Aesop’s proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, you can easily be snared by the charm of a narcissistic, Machiavellian, sociopathic boss. However, it’s also naive to suggest that there is always a direct link between toxic leadership and dysfunctional organisations.

The traits of problem leaders are largely hidden and they come in many guises. Masters at acting the part, they deceive all as they rise to the top. Their flawed personalities and character-deficits are hidden from view, whether they succeed or fail against the organisation’s measure of success.

What should we do to avoid the dark side and play a part in developing an effective leadership style in our organisations?

There is always a good chance that the power-holder’s personality characteristics, by a process of osmosis, become part of the organisation’s culture. This is the true danger of dark leadership.

How to deal with this is a huge change challenge for individuals and organisations?

People and organisations have a knack of becoming trapped in their own limited thinking and behaviours. Like Plato’s Cave – a situation where we are shackled and face only the back wall of the cave, are able to see only the shadows of the fire that blazes outside, but not the fire itself. We have only an illusion, a limited internal reality. Morgan refers to this using the metaphor of a “psychic prison”. He suggests that “In thinking about organization this way, we are thus alerted to the pathologies that may accompany our (own) ways of thinking”.

Blindly following authority, including dysfunctional leaders caught in their own psychic prisons, perhaps even hero-worshiping them (thus reinforcing their pathologies and our own illusions) is clearly foolish.

Many self-help books promote self-interest at the expense of others and this is also something to watch out for. An example: President Bill Clinton is on record as saying “telling purposeful stories is the best way to persuade, motivate, and convince who you want to do what you need’.

All hoods make not monks” (Shakespeare: King Henry VIII 3.1.23).

Be aware also that your boss and other leaders may be allowing their dark side to dominate.

Maybe a little ‘Occupy movement’ in the office will at least moderate the behaviours. Share your story with others.

Sometimes it’s a straight choice: Comply or say Goodbye. Sometimes you can begin to bring healing by speaking up. The watchword is courage.

At a personal level, awareness is usually the starting-point. Driven by a Macbeth-like ‘vaulting ambition’ we could ask ourselves whether we are developing behaviours we should be concerned about. Sometimes it’s a subtle thing that creeps up on us unnoticed as we become more and more immersed in the prevailing culture.

following-leadersDuring times of high stress, perhaps with professional help, we could uncover the root causes of our drivers. Begin to bring healing to ourselves and the organisation we work for.

Develop your emotional and social intelligence. Healthy social engagement and emotional attachment are in many ways the opposite of the unsavoury narcissistic, Machiavellian, sociopathic characteristics outlined above.

Choose to recognise and follow good leaders.

Good, effective leaders – The Light Side

Kahlil Gibran reminds us, “Work is love made visible

Extensive libraries of leadership studies exist. These are based on traits, processes, competencies, style, performance. Servant leadership, results-based, emotionally intelligent, charismatic leadership. Transformational, Quantum Leap, situational, attributional, fast-forward leadership. Ubuntu, follower – centric leadership.

Effective leaders get things done because they:

  • Forge genuinely close relationships.
  • Are humble.
  • Act in congruence with their values.
  • Focus on both task and relationship (empathy).
  • Are self-aware, open, flexible.
  • Are able to reframe complex issues.

In short, they live by head, heart and hands.

Under such leadership, organisations have a far better chance of being responsive and innovative, externally oriented (triple bottom line) and caring.

These organisations are able to live their values as virtues.

True leaders are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are the leaders
The people know and admire;
After them those they fear;
After them, those they despise.
To give no trust is to get no trust.
When the work’s done right, With no fuss or boasting,
Ordinary people say, ‘Oh, we did it’.
Lao-Tzu (6th century BC)

References Author’s Thank You: Anja van Kralingen of the Applied Jung Institute ( was instrumental in helping with both the flow and logic of this article.

Graham Williams

Graham Williams CMC, B.Com Hons, B.A. is a certified management consultant, thought leader, speaker, author. He focuses on the use of narrative, anecdote and metaphor as critical contributors to successful business interventions.

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