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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

You are now entering the dark side of leadership. What if I told you that in each of your organizations there are a number of manipulative, unethical, unfeeling and narcissistic employees? And what if I told you that these characteristics help them climb the corporate ladder into leadership positions?

In business books and business schools, we often use examples of charismatic leaders, such as Sir Richard Branson, or transcendent leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, but we rarely talk about the dark characteristics of leaders that destroy companies from within. What might be more disconcerting is that when we do talk about these leaders we celebrate their bad behaviour.

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In the 1980s Oliver Stone made Wall Street to highlight unethical behaviour on Wall Street; yet stockbrokers and business students began to watch it for inspiration. Now we have Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. Again the movie's intent is to show what happens when greed is insatiable, but a shocking number of students often express their desire for a similar life.

The first three characteristics of this dark side are commonly referred to as the Dark Triad. University of Iowa's Ernest O'Boyle and colleagues show that the Dark Triad is negatively related to job performance and positively related to counterproductive work behaviours. I believe overconfidence is the fourth characteristic, leading to a dark square of leadership.


Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulative tactics, a pessimistic view of humanity and an emphasis on efficiency over moral principles. These principles were outlined in Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince and are often referenced for how to get ahead and get things done, even if that means using immoral or deceptive methods. Therefore, individuals who exhibit Machiavellianism will lie, manipulate and exploit others to get their way.


Psychopathy is not just a characteristic of serial killers. Individuals high on psychopathy have poor impulse control, show little remorse for others, including individuals they harm, and lack concern for the morality of their actions. They use threats and hard tactics in the workplace to gain status and get ahead. Industrial psychologist Paul Babiak and psychopathy expert Robert D. Hare in their book Snakes in Suits state that 3.5 per cent of top executives score highly on measures of psychopathy, which is larger than the 1 per cent found in the general population. These "snakes in suits" may thrive in organizations because society often promotes self-interest and risk-taking over other values.


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Narcissists have extremely inflated views of themselves, with grandiose plans for their future. They feel they are more special than others and more deserving of attention and praise. The spotlight of life is always on the narcissist. Not only do they love themselves, they need others to love them and are constantly seeking admiration. "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance," Oscar Wilde proclaimed. However, Wilde was wrong. For a narcissist, one lover will never be enough.


"Act as if you have unmatched confidence and then people will surely have confidence in you," says Jordan Belfort in his book The Wolf of Wall Street. This is sad but true. Individuals who exemplify overconfidence are better able to influence others and gain their trust. In a study for the University of California, Berkeley, Cameron Anderson and Sebastien Brion show that overconfident people are considered more competent and attain greater status and leadership positions through the illusion that they are competent. Even more shocking, Georgetown University professor Sunita Sah and colleagues have shown that when reliable information about individuals is unavoidable difficult to obtain – overconfident individuals hold influence regardless of their performance.

So, what is an organization to do about the dark side of leadership? Those who are passionate about leadership must shine a light on the dark side.

The bright side of leadership: Humility

In our tale of the dark side of leadership, we need a foil to fight for the good side. However, this leader will not be flashy or charismatic or transcendent. This leader will be humble.

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Bradley Owens of the State University of New York and colleagues define humility as "an interpersonal characteristic that emerges in social contexts that connotes (a) a manifested willingness to view oneself accurately, (b) displayed appreciation of others' strengths and contributions, and (c) teachability." Leaders with greater humility are better able to deal with the realities of the modern economy such as shocks, rapid technological advances and uncertain demand. On the strategic side, humble leaders will be less overconfident and risky. Professor Owens and colleagues found that individuals who had more humility performed better and contributed more to their teams, they fostered learning-oriented teams, and had subordinates with higher engagement, job satisfaction, and retention.

Characteristics of a humble leader include:

  • Actively seeks feedback
  • Admits when they do not know how to do something
  • Acknowledges when others have more knowledge than them
  • Takes notice of others’ strengths and compliments them on those strengths
  • Appreciates contributions of others
  • Willing to learn
  • Open to new ideas and advice from others

Organizations and business schools are beginning to put an emphasis on ethical leadership, focusing on the bright side of leadership and the characteristics of a humble leader. Employees desire to work in collaborative environments with a leader who is open and appreciates their ideas; they want to work with a leader who would rather fail than embrace the dark side of leadership. The bright side of leadership can be what moves our society and economy forward, both ethically and profitably.

Justin Weinhardt, PhD, (@OrgPsychologist) is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool). He is an expert in human resources and organizational psychology, and has a particular interest in understanding how motivation and decision-making change over time.

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