The Dark Side of Leadership

Physics tells us that there is an equal and opposite force for everything. Newton nailed it with his Third Law. And the theory of dark matter has taken hold, espousing that the universe is full of dark matter, just as it is full of normal matter (as we know it). And the same is true for our actions as leaders. For every behaviour there is a dark equivalent that if not checked can prove toxic and damaging to you and others.

Many articles discuss the dark side, the dark nature, of leadership. In addition to these more obvious elements of leadership (outlined here), some leadership traits when expressed too far can also become negative and damaging to teams and organisations. You may have met, know of, or at times have been a leader than could be described as having expressed one or more of these dark sides to leadership.

Caring and Supportive can lead to smothering and micro managing

Leading a team is exciting. It presents opportunities for growth, for support and nurturing others to achieve their full potential. And yet the same disposition to be supportive and caring can lead to a smothering of the team, of over-zealous leadership that quickly becomes an experience of micro-management. Whilst coming from a position of wanting to care and support, too much interference and ‘checking in’ can imply a lack of trust in the team’s ability to deliver on its commitments.

Providing greater autonomy can lead to distance and detachment

Conversely, leaders that aim to empower the individuals on their team may approach this by providing greater autonomy, of individual agency. The idea being that the more space provided for each individual to manage their work and have some agency over it helps that individual to flourish and excel. And yet, when too much space is given, when too much distance is created – with the intent of allowing individual agency – this may cause individuals to feel the leader doesn’t care, or is not interested in the outcomes or the individual themselves. Too much space can create a perception that the leader is not caring, and unapproachable in their aloofness.

Playing it safe can lead to disempowered teams

Balancing workloads for individuals and teams can be tricky, especially when aiming to be reasonable with expectations and allow enough of a challenge for growth. When the scales are tipped in favour of safety, in the guise of fairness, team members may feel disengaged in their work. People need just enough challenge in their work to feel engaged, but not too much or too little, else they may feel overwhelmed and experience high levels of stress. If leaders don’t provide these opportunities for challenge, individuals may feel less empowered by their leader, which results in less enjoyment and productivity for them and the organisation.

Sticking to systems can lead to stifled innovation

Some leaders love a good system. Systems are great for delivering on known processes and outcomes in the most efficient way possible. They help organisations get to scale in their provision of products and services, but they can also be a great inhibitor to innovation and change. In the pursuit of efficiency, systems and processes don’t create the space for experimentation, and leaders that hold true to these processes likewise stifle innovation and experimentation in their team and their organisations. It can squash the entrepreneurial spirit.

Celebrating only success can lead to a reluctance to try

And lastly, everyone is pleased and happy when a success is achieved. Depending on the size of the success, it can be quite euphoric and can help move organisations on to even bigger goals. Western culture has become obsessed with success as the only measure of effort. Yet countless examples exists of greatness achieved after considerable failures. Leaders that only acknowledge success in terms of outcomes and not effort will encourage uncertainty in their teams to try new things, to be bold, to have a go. The act of trying demands an acceptance of non-success, and it is only through these consistent efforts that growth is made.

I am not proposing that leaders intentionally practice their Dark Side, but it can happen slowly, subtly, and without realising it damage may have been done to the team culture and spirit. It is inevitable to completely avoid the Dark Side, as its potential exists at all times even when not seen.

The more leaders can be aware of the possibility of expressing their Darker side, the more likely they are to notice when it starts, and to choose to change their actions accordingly.

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