The Dark Side of Leadership Revisited

The Dark Side of Leadership Revisited by Dr. Greg Waddell

Photo by Beardy Vulcan. Available at Flickr.com.

It has been twenty-two years since Jay Conger wroteThe Dark Side of Leadership,” an article that rocked the world of leadership studies. The premise of the article was that the very qualities that propel an individual into leadership also contain the seeds of destruction that, once germinated, can bring down both the leaders and the organizations for which they are responsible. Was Conger right? What do you think?

The article focused on three major areas that are usually considered leadership assets but that also have a dark side: (a) the leader’s strategic vision, (b) the leader’s communication and impression management skills, and (c) the leader’s general management practices. Each of these core leadership skills–the very skills that propelled the person into leadership in the first place–contains a real potential for undermining the success of the organization.

Impression management is a communication skill that leaders use to mold public opinion about themselves and about their company. When the objective is to make sure that the public has an accurate understanding of a given situation then it is a legitimate and necessary leadership skill. But it can easily become a way of altering people’s perception toward an image that is not in line with reality.

Because some leaders are gifted at communicating, it may be quite easy for them to misuse this ability. For instance, they may present information that makes their visions appear more realistic or more appealing than the visions actually are. They may also use their language skills to screen out problems in the larger environment or to foster an illusion of control when, in reality, things are out of control.

I had an experience in Buenos Aires with a real estate agent who always had a large Bible sitting open on his desk. That same man tried to sell a piece of property our church owned to another family without our consent and without our awareness. If we had not inadvertently ran across someone who told us this was going on, Argentine squatter laws were such that we would never have been able to retrieve that property.

Everyone knows that a clearly defined and emotionally potent vision is essential to organizational success. Right? Well, yes and no. A vision can concentrate energies in creative and productive ways. But it can also take the organization to oblivion if the target was an illusion or became an illusion during the process of working toward it. Leaders can become so enamored with their own vision that they become incapable of seeing data that may be contrary to that vision.

One of the greatest failed visions of the past decade has been “No Child Left Behind.” After ten years, the educational level of graduates from our school system is worse than it was when it started. The problem in this case was the failure to anticipate the natural human response to federal money: get kids through the system, even if it means reducing our standards, and thereby keep the funds rolling in.

The third area where a basic leadership skill can bring harm to an organization has to do with the leader’s management skills (again, the very skills that helped them to become a leader in the first place). Sometimes, leaders who have early successes do so by championing a particular view, building loyalties around their ideas, and alienating other sectors of the organization. In the end, this leads to both subordinates and superiors turning on the leader.

It seems to me that what Conger was getting at was that we need leaders of integrity and humility: integrity to seek the truth even when it runs contrary to the leader’s own vision and humility to acknowledge that they are mere humans, in need of others and often in need of correction.

What do you think? Is Conger’s theory still valid? What has been your experience?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

1Conger, Jay. “The Dark Side of Leadership.” Organizational Dynamics 19 No. 2 (Fall 1990): 44-55.

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