Team IIBP Anveshan, Issue 26, Volume 3

Have you ever scrolled through hundreds and hundreds of job descriptions specifying the need for candidates with “leadership qualities”? Have you ever been employed at an organization that exclusively recruits people with leadership skills, and yet ended up working for a boss who loves to yell? While it may seem appealing and desirable to be in a position of power, it may be wise to think twice before you claim to be someone with every desired leadership quality.

The dark traits:

Trait theories formed the earliest conceptualisations of leadership (Zaccaro, 2007). These theories focused on descriptions of leader traits inherited or ingrained since birth, such as height, appearance, intelligence, physical energy, and authoritarianism. Effective leaders would be described to have qualities such as “tireless energy, penetrating intuition, uncanny foresight, and irresistible persuasive powers” (Yukl, 1989). Often candidates are considered desirable for possessing traits such as superficial charm, cool decisiveness, and a grandiose self-worth. These traits are also frequently observed in clinically diagnosed psychopaths. So, it is possible that successful psychopaths are frequently selected for corporate positions because they fit the employer’s expectations so perfectly.

The dark personality:

Based on the Big-Five theory of personality, good leadership in general has been found to be positively correlated with Extraversion, Openness, and Conscientiousness and negatively related to Neuroticism. Several researchers have explored the associations between psychopathy and personality. They found small positive correlations between psychopathy and Extraversion and Openness and a negative or zero correlation between psychopathy and Neuroticism (Paulhus & Harris, 2008). The relationship between the five-factor model (FFM) and psychopathy shows significant overlap with the personality profiles of great leaders. Researchers found that individuals scoring highly on a measure of psychopathy were found to be holding senior managerial positions or were identified by their companies as high potentials for such positions.

On the surface, psychopathic individuals present “leadership behaviours” associated with positive leadership. The reality is different. Rather, they are part of the “mask” (Cleckley, 1941). This mask is a carefully crafted persona presented by psychopaths to manipulate stake holders in senior positions within an organization into supporting them, despite their poor actual performance. Are organizational recruitments for positions of higher social status, indirectly seeking out individuals with psychopathic tendencies to hold senior positions in their companies?

Recent leadership research with business school students has shown that future leaders value

empathy least, are very self-interested, display cheating behaviour, are less co-operative, are highly likely to conceal their own mistakes, and are less willing to yield to someone else

(Brown, et al., 2010).

To help create healthier work environments, it is important to select our leaders wisely. Personality characteristics and traits are relatively stable and tend to remain constant

throughout a person’s life. They can be good predictors of a person’s leadership qualities. This does not mean that training them does not improve their performance. But there might be limitations as to how much they could improve, considering the defining features ofpsychopathy. Psychology has the power to not only detect sub-clinical psychopathic traits, but to also train leaders to become effective, despite their personal limitations.

Research finds that 60–75 % of all employees typically reported that the worst aspect of their job was their immediate supervisor (Hogan et al. 1990). Further, that job pressure has been cited in 75% of workers’ compensation claims in which mental stressors were the main cause of absenteeism, and 94 % of those claims allegedly involved abusive treatment from managers. Psychopathic leaders rule via fear and intimidation and deny any real voice to those working under them. They discourage discussions, show low tolerance, high hostility, and lack of ethical decision-making. Research has shown a correlation between employees with abusive supervisors and lower levels of organizational commitment, life and job satisfaction, and perceptions of organizational justice. They show higher levels of turnover, work-family conflict, emotional exhaustion, and psychological distress.

We all have to us, a dark side, and a good side. It is quixotic to deny the presence of our satisfaction in achieving positions of power, and handling delegation. It is hard to think of someone who would dislike being able to tell other people what to do while being highly paid for it. The unconscious part of ourselves that we repress and deny the existence of, was called as “the shadow side” by Carl Jung (1938). According to Jung, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions”.


To create a healthier work environment, organizations can rely heavily on psychometrics to maximize the success of recruiting the right people for the right roles. They can utilize psychological theories such as 360 feedback, anonymous listening posts, feedback channels, exit briefings and encourage candid participation in performance evaluations. They can also utilize surveys aimed at assessing points of friction which can easily direct to a toxic leader. Additionally, if a problem is identified, organizations can also rely on psychological training programs aimed at increasing employee self-awareness, communication styles, leadership characteristics and overall cohesion.




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About the author:

Diksha Mangtani is a student of Master’s in I/O Psychology at the City University of New York. She completed her Master’s in Applied Psychology, with a specialization in Clinical Psychology from the University of Mumbai. She has over 4 years of experience working on several research projects. Her interest areas include statistical programming for behavioural data analytics, psychometrics, and evaluating advanced predictive models to support organizational change management projects.