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How to Define Destructive Leadership

07 Sep 2012

A. Introduction. This presentation concerns defining destructive leadership; the presentation is organized in three parts. The first part concerns the definition of leadership, which is a surprisingly vexed issue. The second part concerns the definition of destructive leadership, which depends on the definition of leadership. The third section emphasizes the importance of distinguishing what people do (their behavior) from why they do it (their reasons). In overall terms, the presentation is a kind of history lesson regarding the academic study of leadership.

Many younger people might not realize that between 1948 and 1990 the conventional wisdom of I-O psychology, as revealed in the standard textbooks and literature reviews, was that there are no significant individual differences in the talent for leadership, that what people in leadership positions do depended on “the circumstances they were in”. Related to this was the view that there is no such thing as personality. The concepts of personality and leadership are connected conceptually; both assume that some individual differences in behavior are consistent over time and across situations; if peoples’ actions are primarily determined by situational influences, then personality and leadership don’t exist-or at least don’t matter.

When I first reviewed the leadership literature in the early 1980s, I could find no agreement regarding the characteristics of effective leadership (cf. Campbell, Dunnette, Lawler, & Weick, 1970). Unfortunately, that is still the case today, a fact that leads some people (Hamel, 2007; Khurana, 2007) to conclude that the academic study of leadership has failed. In the early 1980s I also found substantial consensus regarding incompetent leadership. For example, Hertzberg (1966) showed that 75% of existing employees reported that the worst part of their jobs was their boss. Bentz (1967) reported that two thirds of the managers at Sears, who had been hired based on their assessment center performance, failed for about 11 recurring reasons, all of which were rooted in personality. Unlike research on managerial effectiveness, the findings by Hertzberg and Bentz concerning incompetent leadership continue to replicate very nicely.

B. Defining Leadership. I think the reason the academic study of leadership has failed concerns the way academics define leadership. Academics define leadership in terms of the people who are in charge (Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008). But how do people get to be in charge in modern organizations? Mostly through politics and only rarely through demonstrations of leadership-how else to explain the careers of Gordon Brown and George Bush? Who gets to “lead” any organization depends on the politics of the board at the time the CEO was chosen. The only thing that Jack Welsh and Geoffrey Immelt (GE), or Michael Eisner and Robert Iger (Disney) have in common is that a board chose them to be CEO. Comparisons of people who succeed in a local political competition-which is how academics define leadership-can’t in principle lead to any robust generalizations.

Drawing on evolutionary psychology, Van Vugt, Hogan, and Kaiser (2008) suggest that: (1) people evolved as group living animals; (2) warfare was a major factor driving human evolution; (3) leadership was a crucial resource for group and individual survival; and (4) this tells us how to define leadership. Leadership should be defined as the ability to build and maintain a high performing team-compared to the completion; and leadership should be evaluated in terms of the performance of the team. From this we can conclude that some people will have more talent for leadership than others, and that is exactly what classic papers by Judge, Bono, Ilies, and Gerhardt (2002) and Harter, Schmidt, and Hayes (2002) demonstrate.

C. Defining Destructive Leadership. If we define leadership as the ability to build and/or maintain a high performing team, then it becomes easy to define destructive leadership. In the most general terms, destructive leadership is behavior that undermines or destroys the effectiveness of “a team”. Politicians ruin countries, generals ruin armies, CEOs ruin companies, coaches ruin teams, teachers ruin students, and parents ruin children all the time.

What is it that destructive leaders do?

It depends on the leader’s level in an organizational hierarchy; lower ranking leaders have fewer malevolent options than senior leaders. Think of leaders as existing in three levels: (1) First line; (2) Middle; (3) Senior. First line supervisors destroy their teams almost exclusively through their behavior. There is a reasonably well defined taxonomy of bad managerial behavior captured by our dark side measure of personality (Hogan & Hogan, 2009); these behaviors include: bullying, harassing, exploiting, lying, betraying, manipulating-in short, denying subordinates their basic humanity. These behaviors alienate the subordinates, who in response, engage in a wide range of passive aggressive behaviors that undermine the performance of the team. They also retaliate actively with law suits and, at times, direct violence.

Destructive leaders at the second or middle level have at their disposal the full range of behavioral options just described. In addition, they can destroy their teams by making bad tactical decisions-that is, through exercising bad judgment. The scope of the damage created by bad tactical decisions is relatively limited; examples would include: the coach of a football team calling for an obviously wrong defensive formation; a fourth grade teacher focusing on music and ignoring math; a mid-level manager routinely overspending the budget.

Senior leaders have much greater discretion to act destructively (Kaiser & Hogan, 2006). They can avail themselves of the full range of behavioral options described above-bullying, exploitation, harassment, etc. In addition, like mid-managers, they are empowered to make bad tactical decisions. But it is at the level of strategic decision making that senior managers can be most destructive, and in ways that vastly exceed the capacity of lower level managers to be destructive. Strategic decisions fall into two categories: decisions about staffing and decisions about direction. The examples of disastrous strategic decisions are almost endless: Napoleon and Hitler decided to invade Russia in the winter, at the cost of millions of lives and the ends of their empires. More recently and much closer to home, consider the case of Leo Apotheker who, immediately after becoming CEO of Hewlitt-Packard, decided to take HP out of computers and into the software business, but only after appointing a crony from SAP with no background in computers to run the computer business. Or consider George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and put Donald Rumsfeld in charge. Conversely, in terms of organizational effectiveness, if a CEO makes good strategic decisions, then the consequences of his/her brutalizing the staff are minimized. An example would be the case of the very nasty Steve Jobs at Apple.

D. What they Do and Why They Do It. Organizational psychologists often seem content to define and categorize relevant behaviors and stop there. But curious minds wonder about why people do what they do; curious minds want to go deeper into the problem. In the present case, we have delineated the behaviors that define destructive leadership, but that leaves us with the question of why leaders behave in ways that destroy the teams for whom they are (at least nominally) responsible?

The Big Reason most people behave badly is that they are self-centered; they are preoccupied with their own agendas, and unable or unwilling to consider how their actions might affect others. But what causes this self-centered focus? There are two causes of self-centered behavior: (1) insecurity; and (2) arrogance. People who are insecure lack confidence and are primarily concerned with their own psychic survival, they live in a nearly constant state of panic, and react emotionally to real and imaginary perceived threats. If a subordinate makes a mistake, it may reflect badly on the “leader”, who then reacts angrily and disproportionately to the subordinate’s mistake. When confronted with data indicating that they have made bad decisions, they explode and blame the mistake on external factors. Leaders who are arrogant have too much confidence, and see others (and especially subordinates) as objects to be used for their own purposes. Arrogant generals order armies to fight and die in order to advance their careers; Richard Nixon ordered his White House lawyer John Dean to take responsibility for the Watergate break-in (thereby letting Nixon remain in office)-this is called “taking one for the team”. Arrogant leaders feel entitled to exploit and abuse their subordinates because the subordinates are existentially unworthy-they are like farm animals that can be slaughtered for an evening meal. When confronted with data indicating that they have made bad decisions, they typically ignore the feedback and say it is time “to move on”.

E. What Does It All Mean? On the one hand, the research regarding the characteristics of effective leaders does not converge. On the other hand, the research regarding the characteristics of destructive leaders converges rather nicely. From this, it is possible to conclude that the best we can hope for is to use our valid assessments to screen out the bad ones, that effectiveness is the absence of incompetence, that he who leads least may lead best. But it is also possible to conclude that it really matters who is in charge, that leadership is the most important and consequential problem in the organizational sciences.

Robert Hogan 
Hogan Assessment Systems

References

  • Bentz, V.J. (1967). The Sears experience in the investigation, description and prediction of executive behavior. In F. Wickert & D.E. McFarland (Eds.), Measuring executive effectiveness. (Pp. 147- 206). New York: Appleton, Century, Croft. 4
  • Campbell, J.P., Dunnette, M.D., Lawler, E.E. III, & Weick, K.E. Jr. (1970). Managerial behavior, performance, and effectiveness. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., & Hayes, T.L. (2002). Business-unit-level relationships between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 268-279.
  • Hamel, G. (2007). The future of management. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business school Press.
  • Hertzberg, F. (1966). Working and the nature of man. New York: Crown.
  • Hogan, R. & Hogan, J. (2009). Hogan Development Survey Manual (2nd ed.). Tulsa, OK: Hogan Assessment Systems.
  • Judge, T.A., Bono, J.E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M.W. (2002). Personality and leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765-780.
  • Kaiser, R.B., & Hogan, R. (2006). The dark side of discretion. In R. Hooijberg, J. Hunt, J. Antonakis, K. Boal, & W. Macey (Eds.), Being there even when you are not. Monographs in leadership and management (Vol. 4, Pp. 177-197). London: Elsevier Science.
  • Kaiser, R.B., Hogan, R., & Craig,S.B. (2008). Leadership and the fate of organizations. American Psychologist, 63, 96 – 110.
  • Khurana, 2007. The unfulfilled promise of management as a profession. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Van Vugt, M., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R.B. (2008). Leadership, followership, and evolution. American Psychologist, 63, 182-196.
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