The dark side of leadership. Why do leaders go bad?

08 March 2013

Dawn Eubanks
  • Why do destructive leaders emerge and become violent?
  • Research looks at the drving forces behind destrcutive leaders
  • Ideological leaders can drive followers to violence
  • The group and environment just as strong as individual factors

There are thousands of books on how to be a great leader, but what about the bad leaders. How did they get into power? And can we learn anything from them?

Dawn Eubanks looks at the dark side of leadership, and by looking at leadership at a unique angle she finds out new things about what it takes to get to the top and influence people.

When leadership goes bad it can act as a warning and gives us some valuable lessons.

Dr Eubanks said: "My research looks at how organisational and environment factors would enable a destructive leader to emerge.

"There are certain characteristics needed to become a leader such as agreeableness, conscientiousness and technical expertise. The things that can make a leader go bad might be personality-based or a group that they are in or the environment.

"If they are operating in an environment where they feel like things have been taken away and feel justified in what they are doing then that could tip somebody over the edge.

"There are a lot of people exposed to similar things, but not everybody becomes destructive."

In her study, The sources of leader violence: A comparison of ideological and non-ideological leaders, Dr Eubanks looked at 80 leaders from history, from Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Ladin to George Soros and Nelson Mandela, and found that corruption was a key indicator of violence.

She said: "When one considers the careers of Osama Bin-Laden, Vladimir Lenin, and Pol Pot, three commonalities come to mind. First, like all leaders they exercised influence - in fact, exceptional influence given their impact on our world.

"Second, in all three cases the exercise of influence was based on the articulation of a distinct, and apparently powerful, ideology. Third, in exercising influence these ideological leaders unleashed, and at times encouraged, exceptional levels of violence.

"We looked at what we call ideological leaders to find the reasons why they turn violent as opposed to non-violent ideological leaders. 

"The study provides some further support that variables such as entitlement (related to narcissism), low openness (related to authoritarianism), and information distrust (related to fear and outcome uncertainty) were found to differentiate violent from non-violent leaders.

How do destructive leaders emerge?

"But our reseach also suggests the group, organisational and environmental conditions may give rise to the emergence of violent leaders.

"We discovered that group insularity, institutional sanctioning of violence, and environmental corruption were found to distinguish violent and non-violent leaders. In fact, group insularity and corruption were found to be stronger predictors of violence than the individual variables.

"Groups that have become isolated while evidencing a sense of superiority have unusual potential for violence, perhaps because group processes both reinforce and justify violent behaviour.

"It is also possible, however, that by virtue of their isolation, groups displaying these characteristics may be both vulnerable to the emergence of violent leaders and more willing to act on their direction.

"Moreover, the risk posed by the emergence of violent leaders in these groups may be particularly significant under certain environmental conditions - conditions such as corruption that appear to promote and justify violence."

Dr Eubanks has had papers published on Criticism and outstanding leadership: An evaluation of leader reactions and critical outcomes and Leader errors and the influence on performance: An investigation of differing levels of impact.

And she says that leaders do not have to be charismatic to be good at their job.

"It is often asked what makes a good leader? People will say it is somebody who can inspire, who is charismatic and can motivate people,” said Dr Eubanks. "But there are other types of leaders who are equally effective, like the pragmatic leader.

"They can gather together groups of people to solve very complex problems, but they do not necessarily have a compelling vision. Yet they are excellent problem-solvers and would be considered leaders.

"It is not all about the charisma, if people don’t feel like they are particularly charismatic it does not mean they can’t be an effective leader - they might just have a different leadership style."


Dawn Eubanks is Associate Professor of Behavioural Science & Strategy and teaches Advanced Leadership on MSc Marketing & Strategy.

Follow Dawn Eubanks on Twitter @DrDawnEubanks.

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