Dark leadership is a broad term used to describe leadership behavior that causes harm to individuals on the dark leader’s team or to their organization.
Out through the window or the door
The trial of France Telecom’s (now called Orange) Ex-CEO Didier Lombard, and members of his leadership team, began this Spring. They are charged with moral harassment stemming from a series of employee suicides.
Thirty-five France Telecom employees killed themselves during a period of organizational restructuring between 2008 and 2009. It is reported in court documents that during a meeting with his leadership team Lombard said, referring to the staff he wanted to cut, “I’ll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door.”
Deeper into dark leadership
Earlier this summer, I interviewed former executive, and emerging scholar in the field of dark leadership, Hilary Quosai. “In psychology, the term the dark triad describes three personality traits that come together in one person: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy,” Quosai explains.
These personality traits come together often enough in leadership that it’s now the focus of rigorous research. Although many leaders possess the personality traits associated with dark leadership, not all leaders are dark leaders.
“For example, you can’t succeed in a leadership position in an organization without having a really thick skin. Leadership requires a bit of narcissism and a lot of confidence.” Narcissism can be very helpful when people need to self-promote to get sales or to speak in front of an audience of hundreds or thousands.
“The darkness in dark leadership comes when any overused skill becomes a detractor.”
“Also, data needs to be analyzed objectively,” Quosai says. “As such, some traits associated with psychopathy are helpful in leadership roles and enable leaders to operate at a level where they are not crippled by worrying about the opinions of others.” However, all this can go too far.
“The darkness in dark leadership comes when an overused skill becomes a detractor, and begins to harm others and the organization. Also, the dark triad can progress to what’s known as the dark tetrad which includes everyday sadism, when leaders derive pleasure from causing suffering in the people they lead.”
What do we do about it?
“As a society we need to stop accepting, or being indifferent to, the dark leadership that we see in our business and political leaders, and then we need to start having a conversation about it,” Quosai says.
One form of behaviour commonly associated with dark leadership is bullying. Quosai refers to research from the Workplace Bullying Institute showing that 19% of workers in the US recorded some kind of workplace bullying, and 61% of people doing the bullying were bosses.
“Almost everyone we know, our family members and friends, have experienced some form of dark leadership. Unfortunately, the most common result is the employee ends up leaving the organization and the leader’s behavior goes unchecked.”
But what about blowing the whistle on the bully?
Another option is to be a whistleblower, but Quosai has seen that the very mechanisms that enable whistleblowing in an organization are also the mechanisms that support leaders who are bullies. Therefore whistleblowing is seldom effective in organizations.
Experiencing dark leadership
Few people engaged in doctoral studies have Quosai’s corporate leadership experience. Twenty years of executive leadership roles in the financial services industry exposed Quosai to the toxic influence of unchecked dark leadership.
Quosai knows the pressures that come with senior leadership, “As I progressed in organizations, I began to notice that elements of dark leadership might be more expected of me. I had to make the decision to continue in my leadership role or simply walk away. What became important was the need to shine a light on dark leadership, more broadly, and I couldn’t do that from within an organization.”
Now Quosai is on a mission to create better organizations by helping other them recognize the traits of dark leadership and keep those behaviors in check. She wants to give organizations a new language for dark leadership so that they can take action before dark leaders take everyone down with them.
What we all need to know about dark leadership
When I asked Quosai for three things we should all know about dark leadership, here’s what she said:
- We all have a shadow or dark side, and so does every leader. We need to stop idealizing leadership and realize that it comes with a dark side that each leader needs to recognize in themselves and control.
- We must begin prioritizing means over ends, not just managing means to ends-at-all-costs. Although successful results are absolutely necessary for organizations to grow, we know that there are ways to achieve results without sacrificing the wellbeing of others.
- Dark leadership is something that we should not be afraid to talk about. Once we have an understanding of dark leadership and an acceptance that everyone has the potential to be a dark leader, then we can begin working with leaders to help them increase their self-awareness and keep their dark sides in check.
Quosai’s doctoral research into dark leadership is underway. Expect an update here on the Work Feels Good blog.
Let’s keep the conversation about dark leadership going. Have you seen it in your workplace? Any advice for people who might be suffering through it today? Please let me know by leaving a comment, below. Or, you can connect with me and comment on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Also, please share this article with your family, friends, and coworkers.
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