Facing Up To The Dark Side Of Leadership
This article considers the dark side of leadership. It is based on many years’ experience of working with leaders on both the good side and the bad side. What do I mean by the dark side of leadership? It is the un-discussable: the elephant in the room, especially when it becomes larger and all say it is not there. There are two aspects to the dark side of leadership: personality and context.
When charisma goes wrong
The personality side is when charisma goes wrong. A charismatic personality exudes a motivational force that people find attractive and compelling. There tend to be two points of view on the power of charisma; you are either a great communicator or it could be that you have weak followers. With both, an element of motivation is evident.
Manipulation is one of the essential elements of charisma and when the positive side is less dominant than the manipulative side, the dark side begins to hold sway. Why should the dark side become so dominant? One reason could be legacy, the desire to be remembered. As chairman or chief executive, the whole strategy of the company could be centred around leaving a lasting legacy as opposed to dealing with business problems.
Another aspect of the dark side is power: the burning desire of the leader to stamp their personality in such a way that it dominates strategic decision making and thus tremendous problems arise. The other aspect is personal satisfaction. Sometimes leaders even commit sexual misdemeanours based on their need to dominate and again, that leads to all sorts of problems.
Bribery and corruption
Different contexts hold different values and nothing can be as contentious as bribery and corruption. In two thirds of the world, one can’t do business unless a bribe is given. From Russia to China, to Turkey to Greece, to most of South America, to many Asian countries, some transactional cost may be incurred - it is called bribery in the West, in other countries it is called a transactional cost.
How does much of the world deal with this paradox? Most are reluctant to discuss the issue. That leaves boards and top teams to handle, in whatever way they can, what many consider to be essentially a non-acceptable route to market. Unfortunately there may be no other acceptable route to market. Imagine you are a board member realising that the organisation is involved in bribing in six countries in order to get business, but still all the general managers are performing well. To do nothing in your role of board director could eventually land you in prison. It is understandable why there is a reluctance to talk about how we deal with so called unacceptable transactional costs. This dark side to leadership means the leader – as a person – is pitted against the context, namely, the taught system operating in that country.
All your instincts say stay clear. But the people who can’t stay clear are the ones who are involved, namely, the country managers. With a charismatic, but non–listening, power oriented, legacy driven CEO, determined to make an impact and reluctant to face up to reality, the whole organisation could be pushed into a region of the world where corporate reputation could be badly tarnished. How does one do business as a minerals company from South America, right through to Asia? All know the reality of transactional costs. So, how do you stay clear if you are a board member? The press and media will inevitably put two and two together. So, what is your position? Stakeholder relations with governments sometimes go wrong, what is your position? For leaders these are uncomfortable realities that seem almost impossible to deal with.
The situation with BP’s Gulf of Mexico crisis appears to display signs of unresolved, uncomfortable realities. No outsider can know all the details, but the principal casualty was Tony Hayward, BP’s former CEO. There are so many unanswered questions. One can only speculate what was going wrong in the boardroom that allowed Tony Hayward to be hung out to dry. Many other examples suggest to me that boards do have problems which are not being faced. Yet we must talk about the dark side to leadership. When not involved it is easy to talk about the dark side. The difficulties start when you are one of the many who are forced to pick up the ball and run. The dark side of leadership is something that needs to be tackled; it clearly is something that is tricky to raise and deal with. In the same way that everyday issues are talked about candidly, the dark side must be faced up to as a leadership matter of vital importance. Yet the whole subject is so emotional, threatening and frankly, uncomfortable.
The more uncomfortable a problem, the more difficult it is to talk about it. Yet the repercussions of leaving this issue unresolved are enormous. If we don’t talk about the dark side of leadership, top management could be directly involved in damaging the future of perhaps thousands of people. We must shine light on that dark side - or risk unnecessary damage.
Professor Andrew Kakabadse is Professor of International Management Development.