On Destructive Leadership

Destructive leadership is about more than "dark-side" qualities of the individual leader, and the harms done are more than temporary and commercial.

A recent article[1] on “destructive leadership” (toxic leadership) caught my eye. It promised a holistic perspective on the phenomenon. The authors emphasize the role of followers and environmental factors, internal and external. Together, these factors converge to reinforce, check, and moderate leaders’ behavior. It seemed to encourage an “It Takes a Village” mindset. That’s good.  

The article is a long and serious piece, but I found a couple of things lacking in it. First, a reductionistic style of thinking (more on that later) and the lack of a compelling ethical point of view, which I found surprising since it was published in the Journal of Business Ethics. But even when we differ with others, the stimulus helps clarify our thoughts on the matter. Here’s how it worked for me.  

Their Critique of Leader Centricity

They believe Western individualism is at the root of a “leader-centric” approach to destructive or toxic leadership. This point of view can cause us place too much emphasis on individual leader behaviors.[2] The authors’ intention[3] was to correct this imbalance. It was “not to excuse or to make any moral judgments about certain ‘bad’ leader behaviors.” Rather, their “critique” was intended to be “pragmatic.”  

Leader behaviors are part of a larger context. They’re part of a leadership process that involves group outcomes. And whether these processes are destructive or not “should be determined based on the degree to which they … harm the welfare of the group they are meant to serve, not whether certain leader behaviors are viewed negatively by some followers.”[4]  

They argue that leader behaviors do not “tell us about the actual outcomes of leadership processes.” For example, what some experience as abusive, may not feel abusive to others. So, an accurate appraisal of the efficacy of leader behavior and of leadership processes must be based on the quality of interactions between leaders and others over time – and on the outcomes.  

I find myself agreeing with much of this, but I also felt some reservations. I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that we – myself, clients I’ve worked with, and researchers – have been drawn to focus on leader behavior as a particularly potent cause of destructive leadership. More on that below.  

Their Argument from Tough Love

In arguing the importance of outcomes over the inherent quality and impact, positive or negative, of leader behavior, they offer “tough love” as an example. They argue that tough love may feel “frustrating or demotivating” initially but later come to be appreciated insofar as, from a retrospective point of view, it’s seen to boost motivation and improve results.  

But, I thought to myself, brief moments of feeling frustrated and demotivated, may constitute a wake-up call, but they don’t seem rise to the level of what we consider abusive or destructive behavior. And tough love is both tough and love. Could we really attribute the same characteristics to destructive behavior?  

Then, they add a “this-too-will-pass” caveat, presumably as rationale for discounting any appraisal of destructiveness. Outcomes, “destructive or constructive, are temporary.” Our appraisals seldom reflect a consensus. “[S]ome will fare poorly from largely constructive leadership episodes, while some will fare well from generally destructive episodes.” Something in this seems dismissive of an appraisal of harm.[5] 

The Coup de Grâce

Perhaps one of the most troubling beliefs I find in their thesis is that “intent is difficult, if not impossible to assess.” They believe that “We do not observe intentions, only behaviors and outcomes.” This is what I see as their essential reductionism. Discerning intentions is not always easy, but impossible? No, I don’t think so. We rely on it when initiating any kind of strategic action in a social-organizational context. 

Grasping strategic intent, practical intent, and social-emotional intent conditions our capacity to act with purpose, sustained effort, and passion. It grounds motivation, team cohesion, and personal meaning.

My Summary Insights

My criticism of the authors’ reductionism (i.e., we can only observe behavior, not infer intentions), and their value-neutral stance (i.e., their so-called pragmatism) on judging the inherent moral quality of acts  versus determining their moral meaning based solely on outcomes.   

Power of the Leader – There is a built-in asymmetry of power based on one’s position in a managerial hierarchy, the use of formal authority, and one’s title. Therefore, leaders bear a larger responsibility for the causes of destructive leadership, and greater accountability for eliminating it.[6]   

Importance of Intentions – Intentions go to the heart of distinguishes mere activity from action. Action is purposive. We owe to one another reasons for what we do or propose doing. This is essential to the meaning of intentions. They explain, inspire, and inform. They help define what is good, right, proper. 

Leadership as Communication – We assert leadership through communications, verbal and nonverbal, and through relationships. Intentions, motivations, alignment are established through a conversational style of communication. That’s how you acquire and validate a grasp of others’ intentions. 

Intrinsic Moral Quality of Behavior – There are basic moral and prudential norms in any society with respect to which we need not pretend neutrality: the dignity of all people; treating one another with respect; fair dealing and promise keeping; and they all have behavioral correlates.

Leader/Follower Roles– Yes, leading and following are reciprocal modes of action. But we’re not entirely defined by role-taking on these two modes of action. Most of us are also in a position to help assert leadership, shape direction, collaborate in execution, and more. We are all actors!


NOTES:

[1] Thoroughgood et al (2018). Destructive Leadership: A Critique of Leader-Centric Perspectives and Toward a More Holistic Definition. Journal of Business Ethics, 151: 627-649.

[2] Destructive leader behaviors may be bluntly mean and insensitive (hostility, coercion, humiliation) and/or morally flawed (theft, corruption, dishonesty).

[3] I find it rather ironic that they express an intention in writing, which they believe is important enough to merit sharing with the reader, yet they later they seem to deny that intentions can be understood.

[4] Consider the purpose of 360 feedback surveys in letting the leader know how he/she is perceived. The feedback, of course, this is only the stimulus function of a 360. It is through follow-up discussion that we find out what it really means, and why this behavior might affect the systemic patterns of behavior that generate destructive or constructive outcomes.

[5] I am struck by how this way of thinking conflicts with what we know about the role of positive leader behavior in building a sustainable culture and organizational identity, a role and contributions that help explain enduring business performance (Built to Last).

[6] This does not mitigate the importance and value of learning how to empower others to lead and to be genuine actors and not mere followers. But achieving that systemic level of effective leadership calls for a special effort on the part of senior managers.