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The Antidote to Destructive Leadership

The role of leadership is imperative to any entrepreneurial endeavor. As entrepreneurs, we desire to lead and be led. We naturally seek certainty in times of uncertainty. We look for direction and clarity in times of crisis and confusion. We pursue opportunity to stabilize matters efficiently. We desire protection from perceived threats. What does it take to be a leader – that is, a constructive one, and not a destructive one?

We cannot be naïve to assume that leadership is naturally altruistic, for often, it is harmful and unethical. While caring and productive leadership exists, we must awake to the fact that the dark side of leadership occurs beyond the political realm, and understand how to identify, confront, and nullify a toxic system.

Have you ever experienced a leader, such as a teacher, manager, coach, or employer, who excessively utilized their power, control, or influence? They use harmful behaviors that are authoritarian and oppressive, often creating a range of negative emotions such as fear, insecurity, anger, and resentment in their followers. Individuals who lead in this way are best described as destructive leaders. As Hitler did in Germany during the 1930’s and 1940’s, a destructive leader will use coercion and force to influence others to accomplish their self-interests, yet in doing so, they sabotage the organization’s goals, as well as the well-being and satisfaction of their followers.

Perhaps you may be familiar with instances of destructive leadership in your business or social world, from corruption to cover-ups, to one who uses a trusted position of power for sexual harassment.

Have you ever been left baffled wondering – why does this happen? How do these toxic leaders get away with producing dysfunctional workplaces? What makes followers susceptible to destructive leaders?

We can identify destructive leaders through their charismatic and charming personalities, which makes them persuasive and is used to gain people’s devotion. They have an insatiable desire for power which is used primarily for personal gain and self-aggrandizement rather than for the common good of the organization.

Such abusive leaders are associated with narcissism, which is destructive as it limits the leader’s willingness to receive feedback from others. This causes destructive leaders to lack empathy for their followers and become dismissive of their needs and concerns. Organizations with such pseudo-transformational leaders can experience a high turnover which can be distressing for those involved.

The “why” behind destructive leadership can be derived from traumatic childhood experiences of the leader, which justifies to the leader their abusive and hateful behavior towards others. While we cannot make a direct association, being aware of these issues can help shed some light on this phenomenon.

However, destructive leaders do not occur on their own; they only occur where there are followers vulnerable to influence. How followers act is strongly associated with how leaders lead. And followers who passively conform are actually unintentionally supporting unethical leaders. There are also followers who collude and comply with the leader’s agenda because it is advantageous to their own ambitions.

After all, it is our basic human needs that can make us prone to contributing towards bad leadership, such as our need for reassuring authority figures, security, certainty, belonging in community, and our fears of ostracism and social disparagement.

So what can entrepreneurs do about destructive leaders? Once you have recognized a destructive leader in your organization, it can also be difficult to get rid of them altogether. Trying to change them or remove them from positions of leadership is challenging and often impossible. While there is no panacea to this conundrum, here are six tips to prevent and manage the issue:

  1. Identify potentially destructive leaders through psychological tests. These tests can identify attributes that may not be readily obvious in an interview, such as assessments of a candidate’s willingness to listen, level of empathy, need for control, and narcissism. You can avoid hiring or promoting individuals who exhibit the qualities of problematic leaders by identifying these traits early on before their damaging qualities permeate your organization.
  2. Assess your potential team based on ethical and moral standards. Although this is harder to measure, prospective candidates who score low on ethical quality could be a clear indicator that they could be destructive in their leadership, and you may consider removing this individual from your pool of applicants.
  3. Foster a culture in your organization that allows your team to insist on change. Destructive leaders can be disrupted when followers are more likely to speak out, express their concerns, and demand change. It is important to foster a professional environment that reinforces collaboration, employee initiative, participation, and empowerment, and respects whistle-blowers of toxic leaders.
  4. Build a professional culture that promotes staff development. Destructive leaders often neglect staff development as it threatens their authoritarian leadership. By promoting staff development, you will not only train and build individuals to be better leaders, but also prevent destructive leadership traits from arising.
  5. Create a strong system of checks and balances. This prevents destructive leadership because rules create safeguards that require the leader to share his/her power with followers and accept being monitored by followers. This makes your leaders more accountable, forces your organization to be more transparent, and reduces the likelihood of leaders abusing their power.
  6. Look for green flags. While much emphasis is placed on spotting red flags and dodging bullets, we must also train ourselves to recognize and retain constructive leaders, who on the other hand, focus wholeheartedly on the common goals of both the leaders and followers, and the organization as a whole.

As much as we want our projects to go smoothly, we will inevitably encounter obstacles in life and must look within ourselves to find the strength and security to deal with challenges. As entrepreneurs, we must accept ambiguity and live with uncertainty. We must follow our moral compass. We have chosen this path because we know our capabilities of confronting and handling life crises. We can engage the strength within ourselves to handle the road ahead for us. We do not need to become compliant with any destructive leader, or give up who we are in order to feel accepted by them. It takes courage to act out against group norms when leaders are leading harmfully. Find the strength to speak truth to power. Say no to bad leadership.

XiXi Qian
XiXi Qian
XiXi Qian is a creative entrepreneur of hybrid identities as a Chinese-Australian living in the US. XiXi built and managed a multi-million dollar healthcare center in the Last Frontier of AK, is also an accomplished classical pianist having played at Carnegie Hall, author of the entrepreneurial blueprint "Soul vs Soullessness", and holds a Masters of Consciousness & Transformative Studies.

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