How to Spot a Destructive Leader
By Andrew and Nada Kakabadse
Why do some leaders seem set on the path of destruction? We carried out research across a group of international companies to understand more of this curious phenomenon. Some leaders are set up to fail: they face impossible tasks trying to lead corrupt, incompetent organisations that resist appropriate processes. However, there is a difference between a failed and a destructive leader. While failure usually occurs through a lack of quality, destructive leaders can be gifted with charm and determination, but when something goes wrong their self-confident behaviour can rapidly spiral out of control.
Leadership is a great art. It can test people to the limits of their ability, endurance and stamina. There are cases of exceptionally brave, skilful and wise leaders. Often they are mavericks who have triumphed in unusual circumstances. Yet we can learn lessons from those whose star rose high only to explode into destructive behaviour, damaging not only their own career but also the organisation they were trusted to lead.
Some leaders are quite simply not up to the job, and instead focus on their own self-importance. Lacking the necessary capability, they convince themselves that they are great leaders, but in reality they are deceiving themselves and those around them.
Our Research into Effective and Destructive Leaders
Our research indicates that the effectiveness of leaders depends on their relationships with others, as well as their ability to conceive a vision of the future, communicate it, and create the conditions to successfully realise that vision. When it comes to destructive leaders, there are two key criteria that help reinforce destructive leadership:
- Environments which are likely to facilitate toxic leadership, including organisations which are unstable with many perceived threats and a lack of checks and balances
- A culture that allows a leader to develop a pattern of overt grandiosity, self-focus and self important behaviour which is clearly exploitative and sometimes parasitic
Leaders are in a position of trust and organise resources, in effect, without supervision. They also tend to react more strongly to issues which are likely to have immediate effects, as opposed to those that will impact in the future.
Destructive results do not just come from leaders, but also their supporters. A leader’s degree of selfishness will affect their followers, whose responses constitute a form of feedback that either moderates or worsens destructive behaviour.
Blaming others for their problems is an approach some adopt when they lack the necessary ability to lead. They become suspicious and mistrustful of those who are bright enough to cope, and become progressively more paranoid.
As this paranoia spirals out of control their behaviour turns increasingly destructive as they become more argumentative, belligerent, hostile, secretive, stubborn and consumed by mistrust.
Four Types of Destructive Leader
From our research, we identified four types of destructive leader behaviour:
- The deluded leader is in denial about themselves, the constraints around their work and the details of past occurrences. We discovered that the deluded leader displays destructive behaviour in their inability to make timely decisions and most simply by an inability to get things done.
- The paranoid leader is suspicious of others, always ready to fight seeming threats and with extreme worry for concealed motives and unique meanings. We found that the paranoid leader exhibits destructive behaviour that is characterised by an intense attention to spin, rationalised by an all pervading mistrust of others.
- The sociopathic leader consistently disregards and violates other people’s rights. They exhibit destructive behaviour characterised by indifference to having hurt or mistreated others and a consistent lack of remorse.
- The narcissistic leader is resistant to change. They know that their way is best and have an inability to recognise their many limitations. We discovered that the narcissistic leader displays destructive behaviour that is characterised by a lack of capacity to learn from others or experience, and a refusal to take accountability or responsibility.
Using a model we devised of capability and self- or other- orientation, leaders exhibiting deluded behaviour have low capability and are self-oriented. Leaders exhibiting paranoid behaviour have low capability and are oriented towards others. Leaders exhibiting sociopathic behaviour have high capability and are oriented towards others. Leaders exhibiting narcissistic behaviour have high capability and are self-oriented.
Capable leaders differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values and beliefs, but they all have one thing in common - they get the right things done.
Why do some leaders become either pathologically destructive or intensely inspirational? In large part it boils down to the choices they make, and the behaviours they adopt. The worst believe they are special, entitled to more positive outcomes in life than others, that they are more intelligent than they actually are, and better in their exertion of power and dominance than others.
Participants interviewed as part of our study noted that the destructive leaders they encountered showed no recognition of the moral consequences of their actions, or whether their acts were ethical or unethical. They were quite simply selfish and focused on their own needs.
The importance of insight and understanding
A leaning towards destructive behaviour is an unattractive characteristic of any leader, but is a real problem for the organisation where the leader operates. We would be naive to act as if there is a cure; however, understanding the types of destructive behaviour can help a leader in his or her task to diminish its worst effects on others and, by understanding the costs of his or her own destructive behaviour, offer the insight required to lessen its most negative effects. A feature of leaders prone to destructive behaviour is a persistent failure to take responsibility for their own actions. As such, a shift in corporate governance process and practice may help to mitigate the worst excesses of leaders prone to destructive behaviour.
Andrew Kakabadse is Professor of International Management Development at Cranfield School of Management and Nada Kakabadse is a consulting academic and Professor in Management and Business Research at the University of Northampton’s Business School.