The Dark Side of the Leader

Published On: April 1, 2023 09:00 AM NPT By: Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Father Augustine Thomas has a PhD in ‘Leadership Studies in Organization Development’ and currently serves as the Principal of St. Xavier’s College, Maitighar, Kathmandu.

When a car's engine isn’t serviced in time, it emits harmful smoke. The dark side of leadership is the story of leaders who take the leadership role too personally and emit the toxicity of what is personal in them. The leader with loaded dark shades of personality finds the workplace a platform to unveil their toxicity. A notable leader whose dark side became an open topic of discussion was Hitler. Though there are various versions about what led Hitler to rise to antisemitic ideas and the holocaust of Jews, one version of him agreed by multiple authors is about his harsh childhood. He lived as an unwanted child and experienced rejection, punishment, and abuse in his childhood. He accumulated unreconciled psychological traumas in life; eventually, those accumulated pain became part of his dark side of personality that grew uncontrollably.  He rose as a dictator when the economic depression hit the country in the late 1920s. Coupled with his ideology and psychological dysfunction, he kept everyone in fear and wiped out all who stood against him. His dark side ruled.

The dark side from a psychological perspective

The article ‘The Dark Side of Personality at Work’ by Seth M. Spain et al. draws together a triad of dark personalities, namely High-Machs who are high in Machiavellianism, Narcissists, and Psychopaths.

The first type, the high-Machs, have little empathy and focus on their own goal or personal agendas. They feel no qualms in manipulating others with solid rational arguments that support their own benefit. Lying and exploiting others for personal gain and comfort come easily to them.

The second type is Narcissists, known for their “grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority”, who self-proclaim their success and greatness. They have a low trust level in people with paranoia hovering over them. They are pretentious about caring for others and can be contemptuous of anyone. They continue to find someone on the opposite side and enjoy the warfare. Though they are charming and pleasant personalities for the short term, they are often unsuccessful in maintaining relationships.

The third thread in the triad is Psychopaths. Psychopaths are too known for their self-proclamation, superiority, and lack of conscience. Unlike normal people, they don’t seem to experience anxiety or fear and lack a sense of embarrassment. Punishments are not the remedy to teach them; their impulsiveness for immediate gratification drives them in all situations.

Various studies have been conducted on the dark side of personality and leadership, and the literature speaks about these negative aspects of leaders at great length. A few common features in dysfunctional personalities stand out in the workplace. First, they don’t take responsibility for their failures and consider themselves loyal to their original dark side traits. The fault is often dumped onto someone or a situation.

Secondly, a compliment from them cannot be trusted as words of appreciation because deep inside them, others’ achievements threaten their inferiority complex. Therefore, they will be quick to project their achievements or undermine the achievements of others.

Third, they can live a pretentious life. What they talk about and what they do often won’t correlate. They mean very little, even when their words of support or empathy sound moving. However, their ideas can be admirable and logical, and they are quick to gain followers.

Fourth, leaders with the dark side of personality do not forgive easily. They harbour anger and resentment for years and might even become revengeful when an occasion arises. They can easily engage in character assassination of those who are a threat to them. They live in a sense of fear which is projected through aggression and fighting over trivial things. They seldom flee but fight like it’s a battle for a cause.

The dark personality of a leader cannot be completely condemned as evil. Certain drives in them can help them deliver great results. For example, narcissist leaders can be goal achievers and keep everyone under their authoritarian grip. Though they behave as if they are the centre of the universe, they also ensure all under them perform their duties well. In the process of self-enhancement, those working under such leaders can be crushed by the insensitive leadership approach. In such cases, the leader can destroy the workplace environment and put employees under tremendous stress, resulting in low job satisfaction.

Rising above the dark side

The dark side of a leader has the power to perform. The dark side is characterized by inner compulsions or the psychological drive within the person, the strong urge to react to or contradict with others with no will to pull the reins. But on the other hand, those who face their inner demons should also know they have tremendous energy within themselves to be intellectually and analytically resourceful. Their observations are often unique and add new perspectives. They can create a promising impression which is a plus point for the leader and the organization. They can comfortably stand up against challenges, though, at times, it’s at the cost of feeding one’s own dark sides. 

First and foremost, the journey of becoming an empowered leader originates from sincerely acknowledging the dark side. McIntosh and Rima's book, ‘Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership’, says, “For many leaders, the journey to redeem their dark side must begin by recognizing the desperate need to do it.” The authors recommend the leaders with a dark side to begin the journey of new life by sincerely examining past experiences and carefully understanding one’s subconscious drives.

Secondly, choose to kindle the genuine and the good side of the leader within. The genuine self of a leader can be compared to the imagery of the sky and the clouds. The clean blue sky is the genuine self of the leader, and the clouds passing by represent their dark side. A leader who can watch the inner compulsion of the traits of the dark side and yet remain in the clean sky state is able to rise above their dark side. The longer the cloud remains, the lesser the visibility of the clear blue sky is. The larger the dark side of the leader grows, the smaller the goodness in them appears to be. In the course of processing who you are, you can shed your unreconciled past and become more effective in the leadership role.

Third, be realistic in your expectations from others and pay attention to how your reactions make them feel. The person’s dark side plays a major role in relationships at the workplace. The two major factors that lead to the success of an organization are strong teamwork and healthy interpersonal relationship between the leader and the team members. The team members will gradually see the original version of the leader, so one cannot fake it for too long. In Asian countries, where the culture values relationships above all others, love and respect from the team members come from how the leader has made them feel. Healing the shady traits enables the leader to be better at interpersonal skills.

Fourth, identify those dark sides that have roots in early life traumas or rejection. Seek professional help if the dark side has grown as a visible personality of the leader. Unhealed wounds and an unreconciled past can only make a person more vulnerable to imbalances in life. If those areas are addressed in time, the leader can mitigate personal and professional damage and avoid major mishaps.

Leadership development is the growth in the holistic person of the leader. What lasts in the leader is what the leadership journey has made of them. Therefore, a leader should rise above the charms of managerial skills and give equal importance to enhancing their psychological self. 

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