Leadership is one of the defining aspects of organisations – it is often a leadership figure that brings a team, a company or a project to new heights and successes. As discussed in class, there are different styles of leadership, ranging from coercive to coaching, each of them relying on different styles and having different effects. Some of those affect the climate positively, others negatively, however all of them drive results. However, I thought an analysis of bad leadership was missing, after a bit of research I found a fitting article to give us a more complete view of leadership and a surprising conclusion. The author Malcolm Higgs reviewed literature on bad leadership in his paper “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Leadership and Narcissism” and I will highlight some key findings that relate to our session.
Before giving a definition of bad leadership and its causes, Higgs recaps on the parameters for good leadership in a core definitional framework. The three components are: (i) leadership being a social influence process; (ii) leadership being focused on the achievement of specific goals; and (iii) leadership being concerned with both means and ends (Hughes et al., 2005). It puts a higher emphasis on the relationship between leader and followers, the leader’s behaviour creates a climate that promotes employee performance. This fits well with Goleman’s different styles and his analysis of the climate variable we discussed in class.
Moving away from the focus on good leadership, Higgs names (i) abuse of power; (ii) inclicting damage on others; (iii) Over-exercise of control to satisfy personal needs; and (iv) rule breaking to serve own purposes as the main behaviours of bad leaders. In his paper he goes on to look for the cause of bad leadership and refers to research that concluded personal flaws where the most significant driver of bad leadership, more so than skill deficiencies (McCall and Lombardo, 1983). Further literature narrows the personal traits down to narcissism as the main cause of bad leadership. Here Higgs finds conflicting findings in empirical research, both negative and positive aspects of narcissistic leaders. On the one hand ‘destructive’ narcissism creates a ‘toxic’ climate in an organisation and are known to abuse power for personal aggrandisement. On the other hand the concept of ‘productive’ narcissism (Maccoby, 2000) argues that organisations with narcissistic leaders have a stronger sense of vision, a higher courage for change as well as more charismatic leadership. Digging deeper, further research could confirm this view, finding that narcissistic CEO’s would initiate more changes, engage in acts of grandiosity and undertake bolder moves (Chatterjee and Hambrick 2007). However performance of those firms was neither better nor worse than that of other firms. Higgs concludes that further research is necessary to weigh the contradicting effects of productive and destructive narcissism.
In my opinion Higgs uncovered some very interesting aspects of bad leadership that add to our discussion of the topic. Might bad leadership occasionally drive a company to more successes? Steve Jobs and Apple come to mind. Infamous for his draconic and sometimes harassing leadership style, he not only founded Apple, but advanced it from bankruptcy to most admired company in the world in two decades. Especially in chaotic or troublesome times an organisation might be in need of a visionary leader that is willing boldly change direction.
Looking forward to any thoughts on the topic.
Malcolm Higgs: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Leadership and Narcissism. Journal of Change Management, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 2