The Dark Side of Leadership 1

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10 Leadership traits that will destroy your organisation

Having spent 20 years of my life in the corporate world and 10 of them in leadership roles, I’ve been privileged to have worked with some fantastic leaders from across 3 continents. I’ve written many posts on positive leadership for Think Oak! over the years, but have never really talked about the darker side of leadership.The Dark Side of Leadership - 10 Leadership traits that will destroy your organisation

So in this post I’d like to look at some of the leadership traits that I have come across in my career that destroy relationships, teams, individuals and ultimately brands. Luckily the ‘Dark’ Leaders are rapidly becoming extinct but there may be a DARTH VADER in all of us!

D – Delusional

The worst thing about bad business leaders is that they genuinely believe that they are doing excellent work.  Yes, they may realise that their companies are not performing.  But in their minds, it is not their leadership.  It is the economy, competitors, the government and regulation, their customers, their weak employees and so on….

I would argue that in the short-term some of these may be true, but over the medium to long-term, if a company falters, it is the fault and responsibility of its leadership.

In short, most leaders of under-performing companies are simply deluding themselves. So what are the most common ‘lies’ that these ineffective leaders repeat to themselves on a regular basis to maintain their fantasies?

  • We live our brand message and are easy to do business with.
  • I have clearly communicated our goals to the team. Each employee knows how their daily activity fits into the overall strategy.
  • We love our customers. They are the lifeblood of our business. We never take them for granted, always finding new and better ways to service them.
  • Our customers value us as one of their best suppliers.
  • We hold everyone equally accountable from the advisor on the phone to the salesperson knocking on doors to the top management to me. There is no favouritism.
  • Our performance review system is fair, just, and not at all political. Through it, we clearly communicate how everyone in the company is doing.
  • I value learning and continuous improvement. I continue to learn and improve the way I do my job every day.
  • Any customer churn comes from those customers who are always shopping for the lowest price.
  • We are open to new ideas and possibilities even if they are not standard or if they conflict with what we are currently doing.
  • There is no growth in our market, but we are out-performing our competitors.
  • We have a sustainable competitive advantage in our key markets.
  • There will always be a market and customers for our products and services even for the next 5, 10, 15 years.
  • Although we are struggling, the right acquisition / product launch / IT system would solve all of our problems and get us back to growth.

Delusional thinking is so widespread in business and in life these days that psychologists have a name for it: ‘confirmation bias’.  Confirmation bias occurs when you pay attention to and seek out information that agrees with your previously held views.  Meanwhile, you downplay, discount, or ignore evidence that contradicts your views.

A – Aloof

Most of us have had to work with an unapproachable leader at some time.  These leaders may be present in the physical sense, but make themselves aloof in a kind of ‘do not disturb’ way and it can be as simple as just keeping their door closed.  If you sit in an office with the door closed all day, every day, you’re sending out a message – ‘Don’t talk to me!’.  It is easy for leaders to give off an air of ‘don’t talk to me!’, without even being aware they’re doing so, perhaps because they’re ‘too busy’ or dealing with bigger issues.

Leaders need to understand that this is about perception; you might not think that by keeping your office door closed or making it clear how very busy you are would be reasons for your team not to approach you, but they may well do.

Some leaders, quite simply are not interested. They are too important and too busy to have one on one conversations with people in their teams. There are still a few (although admittedly not as many as there were ten years ago) who just expect you to get on with the job and sort out your own problems.  These people tend to have very poor relationships with their teams and therefore little communication beyond the issuing of instructions.

R – Ruthless

It’s often said that even the most respected leaders are considered by many to be ruthless, even brutal at times. Great leaders have to be decisive. Often their decisions will displease many, but they can’t effectively lead if every decision is the result of democracy or consensus. This is the difficult path for the leader. It’s easy to stay popular when you appease everyone, but rarely will that drive a large organisation to success. They must make the best decision taking all the needs and wants into account.

When success requires speed, innovation, collaboration and a business culture that motivates everyone, the ‘old’ ruthless won’t work anymore. The ‘old’ ruthless was for leaders to ride roughshod over everyone so long as their objectives were met – their people, their suppliers, their customers and their peers. This simply is not accepted by many anymore and people will exit stage left if they can and at the first opportunity.

The new leader demands ruthless honesty, ruthless focus, a ruthless attention to people and—although it may sound contradictory—ruthless flexibility. All of these are critical to success.

T – Tyrannical

Leading through bully tactics and fear may get you results in the short-term, but ultimately will lead to disintegration of relationships and teams.

Tyrants may delegate some tasks, but never power. They impose rules and procedures on others and are unprincipled with themselves. Their trademark is secrecy, rumours, lies, manipulation, and contradiction. Highly defensive, they protect their territory jealously and desire to grow their empire. They do not manage talents, but create fuzzy boundaries and introduce change through the insecurity of others, unsettling people. Persons of power are divisive. They manage by fear and distrust. Cohesion is impossible in their teams; cliques and clans are the norm.

Few tyrants allow opinion to conflict with their own, for they deeply need to believe they are omniscient and omnipotent, and that their truth is The Truth. They believe that other countries, other groups, and other people are dangerous; they believe any stranger is dangerous. Deeply suspicious, they generate paranoia and dependency. They perpetuate a top-down organisation. They humiliate peers or bribe them, treat their teams as infants reduced to squabbling with one another. They break people’s dignity, hopes, and lives.

To move ahead, tyrants believe that time exists only to serve them, and seek immortality while living in the short-term, not preparing the next generation, or their successor, not supportive of their own boss. Thinking themselves to be among the gods, they cultivate their greatness.

H – Hypocritical

Positive corporate values are a given on most business mission statements these days. But when leaders fail to live up to the values they’ve articulated, it’s a recipe for cynicism at best.

‘Do as I say, not as I do’ leadership is a recipe for disaster in organisations and happens all the time, particularly in larger organisations.

Some common example of leadership hypocrisy might be:

  • Directing that all employees are to stay in the cheapest hotels when on business and to keep travel costs down in order save jobs and hit profit targets, only for the senior management to continue to stay in the best hotels and travel first class.
  • Encouraging open and honest feedback about the organisation’s leadership and then going on witch-hunts to discover who it was that gave the ‘negative’ feedback.
  • Remunerating the senior management with completely different mechanisms so that they receive pay increases and bonus payments when the vast majority of the organisation doesn’t even if the organisation performs poorly in the traditional sense.
  • Implementing people and performance management strategies at enormous cost and not implementing them at the senior management level.
  • I could go on….

Some hypocrisy may be unavoidable for leaders in the modern world. With rapid changes in the environment, it can be very hard for leaders to keep promises today that they made at a year ago. Companies also have more stakeholders—parties to whom the public feels they are responsible—than ever before. The public itself is a powerful stakeholder that is increasingly demanding about issues ranging from the environment to employee benefits. With the incredible speed and reach of social media, companies are now under unprecedented scrutiny, not only from their employees and shareholders, but also from advocacy groups, watchdog organisations, and an ever-savvier public.

V – Vindictive

Leaders have such an important effect on other people’s lives that their lack of forgiveness can create a climate where anger, bitterness and animosity prevent a team, an organisation, a society, and even a nation from being the best they can be.

Leading others means dealing with a plethora of relationships implying an enormous amount of emotional management. As a leader, you are operating in settings rife with strife, which if left unresolved, can become a festering drag on an organisation’s effectiveness. People who cannot forgive get stuck into a downward spiral of negativity, taking everyone around them with them.

Unfortunately, for far too many people in leadership positions, revenge comes more naturally than forgiveness. We have an innate sense of justice: we want others to be punished for what they have done to us. A strong reaction to fairness or unfairness seems to be programmed into our brain, making us hard-wired to retaliate and seek justice when others hurt us.

When you cannot forgive the people who have hurt you, these feelings become a mental poison that destroys the system from within. As numerous studies have shown, hatred, spite, bitterness, and vindictiveness create a fertile ground for stress disorders, negatively affecting your immune system. And, to boot, an unforgiving attitude is positively correlated to depression, anxiety, hostility, and neuroticism, and associated with premature death.

I would not say that people who exhibit these behaviours—and are less likely to forgive—cannot be leaders. But they will not be the kinds of leaders that get the best out of their people. The ability to forgive is an essential capability for any leader wishing to make a difference.

Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing unacceptable behaviour; it is about healing the memory of the harm, not erasing it. When you forgive, you don’t change the past, but you can change the future by taking control of your destructive feelings instead of letting them control you, and creating a new way of remembering.

A – Avarice

We have all heard the infamous line from the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good”.  Unfortunately, we saw the results of that mentality with the recent collapse of financial institutions across the globe as well as the billions of lost funds and millions of destroyed lives of investors, workers and their families.

It is important for any business leader to distinguish between greed and ambition. The word ambition is defined as, “A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work; Desire for exertion or activity; energy.”

The qualities of ambition are what make leaders succeed, companies great and what drive continuous improvement.

The new statement, “Ambition is good” needs to become the new mantra for business leaders. Ambition is not self-serving, where any means justifies the end. Ambition is about serving self, your community, as well as those you serve. It is about providing opportunity through hard work, desiring an honourable position in a respectable enterprise, and all of it being built and sustained with determination.

D – Dishonest

Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship, both personal and professional, and when it’s broken, it is extremely hard to repair. When employees feel they can’t trust leadership they feel unsafe and spend more energy on self-preservation and job hunting than performing at their job.

Leaders that hide the truth from employees or lie outright to them face significant risk of a breakdown in trust not only with their employees, but with customers, suppliers, communities and shareholders.

Lack of trust in leadership is a red flag that your business may have a “toxic” culture. No one likes to come to work every day and feel they are walking into a toxic waste dump. Employees will do the job requested of them, but without trust in leadership, they’re not likely to go above and beyond to help create a high performance organisation. Your business can experience poor customer satisfaction and declining repeat business and brand loyalty – which leads to declining profits.

Lack of trust reduces transparency and communication. Reduced transparency and communication leads to low innovation and lack of agility and responsiveness to changing conditions. To achieve maximum employee performance, employees need to promptly and transparently communicate any potential problems or concerns to leadership. Without trust, this is not likely. Problems can go unaddressed and impact bottom line profits.

E – Egotistical

‘No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it’ Andrew Carnegie

The ego is one of the biggest barriers to people working together effectively. When people get caught up in their egos, it erodes their effectiveness. That’s because the combination of false pride and self-doubt created by an overactive ego gives people a distorted image of their own importance. When that happens, people see themselves as the centre of the universe and they begin to put their own agenda, status and gratification ahead of those affected by their thoughts and actions.

That’s a deadly combination in today’s business environment, where organisations need people to work together collaboratively to meet the ever-increasing expectations of customers.

Leaders with large egos:

  1. Can’t Be Taught Anything New

When a leader becomes unteachable, they stop growing. And when the leader stops growing, so do their people. Eventually the best employees leave, and those who remain essentially are on a slow march to future irrelevance and extinction.

  1. Believe Normal Rules Don’t Apply

Rules. What rules? The egotistical leader truly believes the rules don’t apply to them. This leads to poor character choices and violations of integrity which can have disastrous consequences.

  1. Don’t Admit Mistakes

Often the first observable evidence of ego-induced blindness is the clear omission of admission of obvious mistakes. That’s because the leader has begun to live in denial and started to become out-of-touch. The more egotistical the leader is, the more distorted the leader’s reality becomes.

  1. Blame Everyone Else

Once the refusal to admit mistakes is firmly entrenched in a leader, ego causes the cover up. That means someone other than the leader must be blamed. Shortcuts become the norm with blame firmly becoming the weapon when results don’t meet expectations.

  1. Stifle Potential

Wherever an egotistical leader exists, so does a ceiling on their team’s abilities and capacity. The team will never reach its full potential because their leader spends the majority of his time terrorising and devaluing their people. At that point, any prior success and any future growth become unsustainable because the team will have stopped practicing the daily disciplines that led to their previous achievements.

Like an addictive drug, high levels of ego severely distort a leader’s perspective and reality.

R – Resist Change and New Ideas

In our high-stakes and hyper-connected world, the risk of embracing change, or even talking about it, can send shivers down the spine of any executive who is held accountable for results. And that’s pretty much all of them. Risk of gambling on the wrong future looks greater than the risk of taking small steps from a proven though imperfect past.

Leaders at risk often begin to be driven by a fear of failure rather than the desire to succeed. Past successes create pressure for leaders: “Will I be able to sustain outstanding performance?” “What will I do for an encore?” In fact, the longer a leader is successful, the higher his or her perceived cost of failure.

When driven by the fear of failure, leaders are unable to take reasonable risks. They want to do only the tried and proven; attempts at innovation—typically a key to their initial success—diminish and eventually disappear.


Most leaders at one time or another will have experienced one or more of these darker traits in their character. I know I have. Self-awareness and regular 360 feedback from your peers and your teams is therefore crucial to keep yourself from slipping over to the Dark Side!

I hope you enjoyed the post! Would love to hear your thoughts on the darker side of leadership.