Healthcare Informatics and Technology Investors
Healthcare Informatics and Technology Investors


About Team Role Theory

History & Research

Reliability & Validity

Dr. Meredith Belbin

Behavior vs. Personality



The two faces of leadership: considering the dark side of leader-follower dynamics

By Christine Clements, John B. Washbush

Leadership's positive face

A common feature of modern perceptions of leadership is that leadership is a good and positive thing. In the modern era, Burns (1978) cast leadership as action uniting leaders and followers in the pursuit of significant and morally desirable change. Bennis and Nanus (1985) proposed that leaders are people who "do the right thing", and Bass (1990) used the term transformational leadership to describe inspirational leadership wherein followers are elevated and empowered. Two themes emerge from this body of theory. The over-riding theme is that leadership necessarily involves moral purpose - the positive face of leadership. Proof of the power of this imagery was provided by Palmer (1994, p. 25) who commented:

Many books on leadership seem to be about the power of positive thinking. I fear they feed a common delusion among leaders that their efforts are always well intended, their power always benign.

Palmer's words suggest that leadership can show a dark side.

The second implication of popular leadership models is that followers play a rather passive role. Transformational models define leadership in terms of the effect on followers. That is, followers experience a sense of significance, motivation and commitment to leader ideals. But if there is a dark side to leadership, followers must surely carry some responsibility in recognizing and addressing these darker issues. And if there is a dark side to leadership, isn't it also likely that there is a dark side to followership, as well? Failure to acknowledge and examine the "dark side" of leadership and influence can distort efforts to learn about the leadership process and may encourage a blind eye approach to examining the results of influence attempts. Authentic understanding of leadership requires a balanced discussion.

The positive face of leadership strongly reflects the concept of social power as discussed by McClelland (1970, 1976). Individuals high in social power are institution-oriented, aspire to office, want to serve others and foster an effective work climate. Contrasted to this is the concept of self-aggrandizing personal power that seeks to use position, and often charisma, for personal gain. Common wisdom would suggest that people who employ personal power see followers as utilitarian tools, incapable of independent thought, and captured by the magnetism of an overwhelming personality. However, McClelland (1970) has illustrated how even the most villainous personalities often arouse social-power responses in their followers, who see themselves as elevated and empowered. These responses are the same as those that would be predicted by the proponents of transforming (transformational, inspirational) leadership.

It is clear that effective leadership can be instrumental in promoting social good, but what should be equally clear is that effective leadership can also be instrumental in promoting social disaster. The positive face dominates leadership theory, discussion, and education, but as Palmer has noted (1994), this feeds a costly delusion. We need to identify and deal with the shadow aspects of leadership, especially in leadership education and training.

Leadership's negative face

There are many effects of this failure: bad decision making, frustration, dysfunctional organizations, unintended consequences, wasted resources, ruined careers, organizational decline or dissolution, and scores of other negatives. These outcomes are not accidents. How are they caused, and how does leadership contribute? Some authors have begun to address these important issues.

A failure to look inside

Palmer (1994, pp. 25-6) has asserted that:

A leader must take special responsibility for what's going on inside his or her own self, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good ... I suggest that the challenge is to examine our consciousness for those ways in which we leaders may project more shadow than light ...The problem is that people rise to leadership in our society by a tendency toward extroversion, which too often means ignoring what's going on inside themselves ... I have looked at some training programs for leaders, and I am discouraged by how often they focus on the development of skills to manipulate the external world rather than the skills necessary to go within and make the spiritual journey ... It feeds a dangerous syndrome among leaders who already tend to deny their inner world.


Kets de Vries (1993) has identified several of those shadows that leaders fail to recognize. One of these is mirroring, or the tendency to see themselves as they are perceived by their followers and to feel they must act to satisfy the projections or fantasies of followers. A certain amount of mirroring is part of human existence. Our understanding of the world will always reflect some shared perceptions of what is real. But, in a crisis, even the best of us is likely to engage in distorted mirroring. The impact is most serious when leaders use their authority and power to initiate actions that have serious, negative consequences for the organization.


A second problem identified by Kets de Vries is narcissism, a distorted view of self. Narcissists need power, prestige, drama and enjoy manipulation of others. These qualities draw them to positions of leadership, but at extreme levels of narcissism, the results can be disastrous. Narcissists can become intolerant of criticism, unwilling to compromise, and frequently surround themselves with sycophants. While narcissists often "appear" to be ideal choices for leadership positions, they may fall victim to the distortions of their narcissistic tendencies that are reinforced by their position.

Emotional illiteracy

A third problem discussed by Kets de Vries is an inability to differentiate and verbalize emotion, known as emotional illiteracy (or "alexithymia"). These individuals do not respond to their emotions, and are easy prey for the distortions of others. "In the case of these individuals, the general human tendency toward mirroring ... seems to have been carried ad absurdum" (Kets de Vries, 1993, p. 68). Emotional illiterates closely resemble the stereotyped bureaucrat of Whyte's Organization Man (1956). They may be viewed within certain organizations as ideal candidates for leadership positions. While they are controlled, structured and dispassionate, they lack the emotional abilities to empathize, energize, foster creativity and respond appropriately to conflict. They contribute to mediocrity which, in turn, drives out excellence.

Unwillingness to let go

Kets de Vries (1993) has also identified several sources of dysfunction that arise within individuals who, knowing they no longer fit the demands of the job, nevertheless cannot let go. The cause may be strong ego identification with a leadership position. In this case, the loss of position and power suggests a condition of nothingness, which is countered by intensity, single-mindedness and persistence. Another factor contributing to the fear of letting go is the "Talion Principle", the fear of reprisals. While in leadership positions, individuals are at times forced to make decisions that have unpleasant consequences for others' lives. People who give vent to the paranoid fear of retaliation hang on to power and even resort to preemptive action against others. Finally, the fear of nothingness can lead to the "Ediface Complex", the fear that their legacy will be destroyed, which encourages them to hold on to power as long as possible. This dysfunction may also be expressed in generational envy resulting in blocking younger people's careers.

Followership's negative face

Not all these counterproductive behaviors emanate from the leader. Contrary to what might be suggested by transformational leadership theory, inspired and empowered followers can take actions that produce decidedly negative consequences for the leader. Some of these actions stem from purposeful attempts to gain personal benefit and others result simply from personal characteristics having an inadvertent negative impact on the leader-follower relationship. There is a dearth of research addressing followership and almost none addresses the negative face of follower behavior. Followers are collaborators in the influence process no matter what leadership model is employed. They are not just lemmings being led into the sea. This is a fact well addressed by Chester Barnard (1938) in the acceptance theory of authority (a bottom up phenomenon, not top down). If dysfunctional aspects of personality can affect leaders, then they can affect followers as well. Authentic discussion of all that can go wrong in the leadership process requires that we take a hard look at follower participation in unhealthy influence processes.

There are at least two ways in which followers can affect leader-follower dynamics. The first is through the personal traits that followers carry into the influence process, and the second is the synergy that emerges through leaders and follower interaction. A few personal traits have been studied with respect to preferred leadership style. We know from past research that an individual with an internal locus of control prefers a participative leadership style and one with an external locus of control prefers a more autocratic or directive style (Burger, 1986). We also know that authoritarianism relates specifically to an individual's response to authority, and that whether one is high or low in authoritarianism again affects the preferred leadership style when an individual is the object of influence behaviors. But very little has been done to examine differences in follower behavior across a number of potentially relevant individual traits, and much more could be done to identify differences in perceptions of leader behavior.

The search for exemplary followers

Kelly (1992) is one of few leadership researchers to focus on follower behavior. Kelly's model (Figure 1) categorizes follower behaviors using a two-dimensional taxonomy:

From these two dimensions, Kelly classifies followers into five styles:

(1) exemplary (active and independent, critical thinking);
(2) conformist (active and dependent, uncritical thinking);
(3) passive (passive and dependent, uncritical thinking);
(4) alienated (passive and independent, critical thinking); and
(5) pragmatist (medium on both dimensions).

Although incomplete, these styles are helpful in pointing out to leaders possible problems with follower behavior. But Kelly operates on the assumption that leaders will seek to develop "exemplary followers", something many leaders have little interest in nor know how to do. He also assumes that follower behaviors are relatively superficial and related to organizational objectives in some way. Realistically, followers are not always forthcoming about (or even aware of) their shadow sides and may have a strong hidden agenda they seek to gratify. The model places no burden on followers to go within themselves and identify the darker sides of their behavior, and take responsibility for how their behavior interacts with the shadow aspects of leadership. Thus, Kelly's leader is solely responsible for maintaining healthy leader-follower relations.

Another recent work on leader-follower dynamics is Hirschhorn (1997), Rethinking Authority. Hirschhorn addresses the impact of system-induced feelings of vulnerability on relationships between leaders and followers. His discussions of dependency, envy and abdication in these interactions go further in addressing shadow aspects in relationships. However, his main point is that factors in postmodern systems have created negative feelings which must then be responded to in a particular way by the leader (i.e. through openness in relationships). The sense of personal responsibility for self-knowledge and understanding beyond the imposed vulnerability is never discussed, and, here again, the message is intended for leaders, not followers.

Follower syndromes

Kets de Vries (1989), whose psychoanalytic background more readily draws him to shadow aspects of personality, is again among those few who consider the dark side of the difficult and basic relationship between leader and follower. In his discussion of personality syndromes, he has identified dispositions that, at a relatively pathological level, can have serious consequences for the health of leader-follower relationships.

One of these is the controlling disposition. The controller is very similar to the authoritarian personality and the Organization Man. It is quite common for this type to end up in a position of leadership, but they are also frequently followers. They tend to see relationships in terms of superior-inferior, dominant-submissive, and their behavior is defined by their position in the pecking order. As a follower they are likely to do whatever they are told by superiors, and can be very deferential and ingratiating when interacting with those in higher level positions of leadership.

A second disposition that may result in dysfunctional follower behavior is the histrionic. Histrionics have a desperate need to attract attention at all costs. They are over-reactive to external stimuli and allow their behaviors to be defined by the moods and desires of others. Like controllers, they have a tendency to respond positively to anyone with strong authority. They are also highly impressionable, and may be particularly likely to provide unquestioning loyalty to charismatic or transformational leaders.

An individual with a passive-aggressive disposition can appear acquiescent, making it difficult for a superior to confront them. But their pessimism, resentment and covert resistance make them poor followers. Because at the surface their behavior is cordial and appears compliant, it may take leaders some time to recognize the negative impact they can have on achieving outcomes.

Persons with the dependent disposition, whose dependency needs have not been met, are likely to form extremely intense, overpowering connections with the individual who satisfies those needs. Dependency needs (or the need for direction) are universal, and followers may be willing to sacrifice anything, including reality, to have them met. People of this disposition will go out of their way to place themselves in dependent situations and so are extremely likely to be followers. A transformational leader surrounded by followers with strong dependency needs may find it very difficult to get objective or realistic feedback even when actively seeking it.

Lastly, there is the masochistic disposition. Masochists encourage others to take advantage of them, accept blame for things for which they are not responsible and find positive reinforcement in their misfortune. As with most of other types discussed above, they are unlikely to offer to leaders critical, objective feedback with any conviction.

The need for research and some suggestions

All these personality attributes lie on continua ranging from normal to pathological. While we would not normally expect organizations to be overrun with pathological members, the interaction between more moderate levels of pathology in followers and pathological inclinations of leaders may have devastating effects. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these dispositions are not easily assessed or recognized, nor are they commonly discussed in leadership research or education. Clearly, studies examining correlations between leader styles and follower dispositions are needed. Additionally, there are a host of other better known and more easily measured individual characteristics that have not even been identified in the leader-follower relationship. These are traits that may not exist at pathological levels, but can nevertheless indicate potential concerns in long term leader-follower relationships. For the most part, leadership research focuses on global subordinate characteristics (Path-Goal Theory is the most notable exception) or on outcomes in terms of relative effectiveness.

Among the traits that deserve to be considered in the followership process is Machiavellianism (Christie and Geis, 1970). High Mach personalities may be possessed by sycophants, who deprive leaders of critical feedback for the purpose of self-enhancement. The desire to satisfy their need for power may cause them to create situations that set up current leaders for failure. The process is based heavily in a context promoted for political considerations rather than for the purpose of defining an objective reality.

In the same vein, no research has considered the impact of strong follower power needs, social or personal, in the leadership process. It is possible that the more interested individuals are in obtaining their own leadership positions, the greater the temptation to contaminate the current influence process by distorting leader perceptions of reality.

Other follower traits that could have a damaging impact on both the leader-follower relationship and leader perceptions of reality are self-esteem, self-efficacy, risk aversion, conflict avoidance and tolerance for ambiguity. Again, it is not just the traits themselves that bring about negative results, but the effect the traits have when combined with mirroring, narcissism, emotional illiteracy or other shadow aspects of leader personality.

Interactions between leaders and followers can become arenas for creating distortion. In his psychoanalytic examination of leadership, Kets de Vries (l989) discussed a phenomenon known as "folie a deux", or shared madness. Folie a deux is the sharing of a delusional system by at least two individuals. It involves:

shifts of delusions and unusual behavior patterns from the originator of the activities to one or more others who were closely associated with him. These associates not only took an active part but also frequently enhanced and elaborated on these delusions (p. 119).

It is clear that shadow aspects of both leaders and followers can combine to produce a negative effect. If the dark side of leadership can alone produce serious personal and organizational outcomes, then inclusion of the dark side of followership can surely add to the devastating impact.

Rethinking leader-follower relations

The implications of the dark sides of leadership and followership are clear. Leaders, themselves, can misperceive and act in inappropriate ways. Also, followers may, with good or bad intentions, contribute significantly to those misperceptions and misguided actions. Therefore, authentic leadership education must give ample weight to these realities. No actual or intended leader is immune from taking actions, whether or not well-intentioned, that can lead to the worst of consequences and no follower is immune from being an active participant in the process.

Implications for action

We need to de-mythologize the word "leadership". Leadership needs to be treated as influence, reflecting power over others. However, we must strip it of the concept of moral rectitude. Effective leaders can promote terrible things.

We have to define not only the positive side of leadership, but we must take pains to illuminate the characteristics of the negative side and present them with equal weight. This will require some courage because we have been conditioned to emphasize positives and euphemize negatives.

At the same time, we must begin to look at the potential negatives contributed by followers. This cannot be done until we accept the significance of follower behavior in influence processes and outcomes. We must be willing to assume responsibility for outcomes when we are not holding positions of authority, and we must be willing to go within ourselves and look at how the dark sides of who we are can play themselves out in manipulating and covert ways.

As active participants in influence processes, leaders and followers need, in the words of Hillman (1996, p. 243), to grow down:

Growing down shifts the focus of the personality from ... single-minded egocentricity ..., into common humanity, twisting the call to transcend toward extension into the world and its claims...

This implies that leaders and followers need to work at understanding themselves, both the good and the bad, understanding their own personalities, and being open to all forms of information and feedback. Additionally and importantly, leaders need to be sensitive to what follower behaviors are really saying. Finally, leaders need to help followers become leaders in their own right. There are obvious implications for research focusing on the dynamics of leader-follower dispositions and interactions.

Implication for leadership education

Those who purport to train and educate leaders need to incorporate this broader perspective into their programs. Some suggestions for ways to do this are:

  • Define leadership authentically in terms of its positive and negative aspects.
  • Define followership authentically in terms of its positive and negative aspects and the potentially great impact it has on leadership processes and outcomes.
  • Challenge students to develop "true" pictures of themselves as part of an ongoing, life-long process.
  • Help students develop an understanding of the sources of feedback, the implications of feedback and an openness to information in order to protect themselves from distortion and bias.
  • Help students develop sensitivity to observing, assessing and interpreting the behaviors of followers.
  • Provide students with methods for understanding their own personalities and those of others. There is no one way to do this. Students need to be acquainted with a broad spectrum of concepts of personality and techniques of analysis.
  • Help students learn to recognize and develop the leadership and followership potential of others.
  • Provide students with broad exposure to theories and techniques of leadership, motivation and communication.
  • Inculcate in students an ability to deal with mistakes and dysfunction openly and honestly, cope with failure, not confuse action with analysis and exercise patience.

The implications for leadership theorists and educators are challenging and important. Only recently have leadership scholars begun to talk openly about the dark side of leadership which is in us. As Palmer (1994, p. 28) has said:

Why must we go in and down? Because as we do so, we will meet the violence and terror that we carry within ourselves. If we do not confront these things inwardly, we will project them outward onto other people. When we have not understood that the enemy is within ourselves, we will find a thousand ways of making someone "out there" into the enemy...?