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Destructive Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Willie L. Patterson III
July 31, 2023

Leadership is the ability to influence the thoughts and actions of others to achieve a vision, mission or goal. Some simply refer to leadership as “Influence.” I performed a reflective analysis of my leadership styles after years of leading in various positions from a little league coach to a Boy Scout Master, Student Government Association Vice President and Treasurer, fraternity’s President, Pastor and yes- a supervisor with the Army Corps of Engineers for over twenty-five years. I vacillated between various leadership styles throughout my life. I see where I could have been labeled “destructive” at times with my leadership.

While teaching a graduate level leadership course this summer 2023, the author of our primary book, Introduction to Leadership, Dr. Peter G. Northouse’s final chapter is entitled, “Destructive Leadership.” The destructive leader is mean, unfair, manipulative and very controlling and is often viewed in a negative light by their staff. Those that are under destructive leadership often develop emotions from fear, insecurity, anger and resentment (Northouse, page 360-Intoruduction to Leadership). In this article, I will address characteristics of destructive leadership, the environment that develops destructive leadership and the motivation for leading people.

First, destructive leadership involves excessive use of power, control or influence. When one must constantly assert power and control over people, generally it resonates from a place of insecurity or the ego. Leaders feel threatened for various reasons and will often employ negative behavior to catapult themselves before the people they lead. They will fight any perceived attempt to breach their role as a leader. Destructive leadership flows from the EGO. The EGO eradicates group thinking and therefore limits collaboration. Often a destructive leader is lacking in technical knowledge. The destructive leader will rarely host group meetings out of fear the Peter Principle (promoted beyond technical competence) may illuminate in areas where skills lack and consequently followers will lose a level of respect for the leader.

Secondly, destructive leadership is selfish—it is all about the leader’s agenda. The leader sets the agenda, the goals, the production expectations and precisely how the work is to be performed. The obvious challenge with this leadership characteristic is no synergy is developed in the group. People will not go the extra mile for the organization, and they will not work beyond the mandated eight hours. You can expect high turnover in an organization where the leader is the center of attention and the faulty perception that the leader can think for the team.

Thirdly, destructive leadership involves harmful behaviors that adversely affect followers and the organization. Insecure leaders equate leadership with power! Often, power can be corrupt and lead to unethical behavior. The Catholic church and Boy Scouts of America are prime examples of harmful behavior inflicted by leaders. The sexual abuse of children—those that believed in their leaders—proved to be destructive. The fallout from destructive behavior can often become protracted and impact the financial stability of an organization.

Destructive leadership requires fertile soil to grow! Padilla, (2013) Leadership: Leaders, followers, environments, Hoboken NJ: Wiley, introduced a concept he framed, “Toxic Triangle.” The relationship between the leader, the followers and the environment must be ripe for destructive leadership to flourish. When you think of a leader such as Jim Jones, the charismatic spiritual leader, his charisma was critical to gain his follower’s devotion. The destructive leader is also obsessed with power and the need for power. What propels these types of leaders is often susceptible followers. Followers are often passive and submissive. Some spiritual leaders’ “prey” on the submissiveness of followers. The result with Jim Jones and his followers was suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, the death of 943 people, 304 were children.

Destructive leaders love themselves—a common trait of narcissism. Narcissists have a grandiose sense of self and like to receive constant attention from others (Northouse, page 363). When a leader focuses on self, rarely gives praise to the people, speaks of his greatness at every opportunity, you know you have a destructive leader at the helm of your organization. They are constantly looking for the camera, the headline must include his name.

As leaders, we must check our motivation for leading people! What motivates you to lead humans? It’s not a dubious assignment, but one that requires time and commitment. The genuine leader is focused on the well being of the organization and the people. It requires you to think about the needs of others before yourself. Thus, leaders that fail to resemble care for the people and the organization are generally destructive leaders. All eyes on me—destructive! Followers cannot be complacent. Challenge leaders and their styles. If their leadership style seems negative and destructive, have a conversation, ask for a meeting with your leader. Leaders are not given carte blanche authority to mistreat and mislead people.  

Author: Willie L. Patterson III is a part-time Professor with the University of South Alabama. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter: @Patterson1963

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