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When good leadership goes wrong

Friday, April 20, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Monty Python fans recall the optimistic pluckiness of the black knight who threatens King Arthur even after being completely de-limbed. “It’s only a flesh wound!” he chirps and asks Arthur to walk over to where the knight has fallen so he can bite King Arthur’s legs. King Arthur refers to him as a “lunatic” but also kindly agrees to call the one-sided duel “a draw” in recognition of the misguided pluck of the black knight.

Many of us have been in the role of the black knight in an organization. We want to do well. We don’t want to give up. We want to see our organization and our mission positively. But sometimes, we have to take that big tin can off our heads so we can see clearly. And every once in a while, we have to take a stand. It can be a quixotic mission. Or it can be a revolution.

It is axiomatic that leadership has a potential dark side. More contemporary examples of the “dark side” of leadership can be seen in the Enron implosion and even the Wall Street collapse. A leadership blog describes the “dark side” of leadership this way:

“It is sometimes called “the shadow.”  This is the part that is negative and can create toxic environments.  Characteristics can include greed, jealousy, envy, excessive competition, defensiveness, manipulation, … the list goes on.  It is when the ego gets control of us and starts leading our thoughts and behaviors.” 

It isn’t that the “dark side” stems from only negative or bad traits–quite the opposite. It can actually stem from good traits that simply become too strong and trip over into what might be called “tragic flaws”. Getting “carried away” with the power of leadership can be a very bad thing. And that, in turn, can be a very bad thing for your organization, your firm, your members, and your employees.

So how do you avoid this leadership trap?

Maintain trusted advisers who are not in your leadership circle. Get real feedback so you don’t live in a bubble of only those who agree with you or see things from your skewed perspective.

Curb your suspiciousness lest you find yourself in the awkward position of calling your followers/members dissenters when your leadership group, in truth, are the ones dissenting while the organization is in agreement.

Honor service and honor your members/employees. Recognize the loyalty of ‘loyal opposition’ and embrace positive diversity of views. You don’t have to agree with everyone. But you can honor their service to your firm or organization. No one likes to see leaders that deride or minimize members/followers. Be respectful. Keep critical and devaluing comments about individuals to yourself.

Give credit where credit is due. Great leaders do not create themselves. Their words and their behaviors spark commitment to “do good” among others. Fan the spark by acknowledging contributions.

And yet, when you are a leader, be unafraid to do the right thing. Just make sure it really is the right thing. If you wonder, act cautiously, and risk erring on the side of graciousness.

It seems only fitting that this post is going up on the week in which we honor Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here is an example of a man who was not perfect by any means, yet he inspired a huge cultural change. Being a leader isn’t easy. But it shouldn’t hurt those who choose to follow you.

Conger, J. (1990). The dark side of leadership Organizational Dynamics, 19 (2), 44-55 DOI: 10.1016/0090-2616(90)90070-6


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