The Dark Sides of Leaders and Followers


Disagreeable, dishonest and toxic leaders can mean bad outcomes for organizations and work groups.

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters. Okay. It’s like incredible!” Donald J. Trump, former President of the United States, in January 2016 at a campaign rally in Iowa.

Political and business corruption and chaos in recent years has contributed to the interest in how the behaviors of these leaders and their followers are explained by “dark personality” factors.

However, new research highlights that the employees they work with also play a major role in this. Employee anxiety, self-esteem and how leadership behavior is perceived can all affect the leader’s influence on outcomes — and both followers and leaders can buffer against the effects of certain undesirable traits.

Dark side characteristics of leadership has been the focus of much recent research. The topic has increased quite a bit each year, with two-thirds of the publications of the dark triad appearing in 2014 and 2015 alone.

Scott Barry Kaufman, writing in Scientific American, examined “the dark triad of personality consists of narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit) and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism).” He adds “There is an emerging consensus that the ‘dark core’ (or so-called ‘heart of darkness’) of these dark traits consists of an antagonistic social strategy characterized by high levels of interpersonal manipulation and callous behavior.”

In my book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders, I examine in detail how leaders with these dark personality characteristics have caused harm to people, their organizations, and even their countries, and what to do about it.


Published in Frontiers in Psychology is a collection of articles about the “dark side” of leadership edited by Susanne Braun, Ronit Kark and Barbara Wisse. This research can help organizations identify potentially problematic leaders or followers to reduce their negative effects.

“Surprisingly, not only leaders’ but also followers’ dark-sides have emerged as hindering factors for organizational functioning. We are moving away from the somewhat unidimensional view that leaders are omnipotent and solely to blame for negative outcomes in organizations,” says Braun.

“In the wake of various scandals involving misbehavior of leaders and rank-and-file employees, more attention has been given to the dark aspects of leadership,” explains Wisse. “There is a growing awareness that the positive side of leadership and followership should be complemented by a focus on the darker side. There are also plenty of ‘grey areas’ in-between, where further insights are needed.”

The research highlights “Three Nightmare Traits’”at the core of dark leadership: dishonesty, disagreeableness and carelessness. When these traits are coupled with a leader who is also highly extroverted and low in emotional intelligence, serious negative consequences for employees and organizations can occur, including absenteeism, turnover, stress and poor performance.

“A good start could be a positive organizational culture that buffers against negative leadership. Perceived accountability, organizational transparency, and values such as trust, respect and support can offset some of the negative effects a few individuals may have on the overall organization,” explains Kark.

Another approach could be to identify individuals with dark-side traits and prevent them from entering an organization. For example, the Three Nightmare Traits can be aligned with specific personality profiles. This can allow organizations to put specific actions in place to highlight problematic leaders and employees at various stages of their career.

“Diligence is required in early hiring and selection stages, when candidates with dark-side traits may seek to take control of the process,” she adds. “Structured interviews, work samples, and focus on actions and feelings can help to spot inconsistencies. Checking the facts through information from previous employers is a must.”

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters. Okay. It’s like incredible!” Donald J. Trump, former President said, in January 2016 at a campaign rally in Iowa.

In light of corporate and political turmoil scandals and corruption raised about leaders’ dark sides, this research topic is timely.

Leader Traits and Behaviors

A paper by Reinout E. de Vries “Three Nightmare Traits in Leaders,” published in Frontiers in Psychology, reviewed personality traits and their links with dark leadership styles. The Three Nightmare Traits (TNT), are described as dishonesty, disagreeableness, and carelessness, and were found to be negatively correlated with low levels of honesty, humility, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. De Vries argued that specific situations attract TNT leaders, activate their dark-side traits, and result in negative organizational outcomes.

Three different types of destructive leadership and their effects on follower outcomes were assessed in an experiment and a field study by Ellen A. Schmid and colleagues published in Frontiers of Psychology. Differentiating between distinct types of negative leadership their research focuses on follower-directed (abusive supervision), organization-directed, and self-interested (exploitative) destructive behaviors. All three forms of dark-side leader behaviors had a negative impact on followers. However, abusive supervision elicited the highest levels of fear amongst the followers. In relation to turnover intentions, exploitative leadership and abusive supervision affected resulted in follower turnover.

In an article published in Frontiers in Psychology, Shazia Nauman and colleagues extended the research to explore how dark-side leadership affects the private lives of employees. They assessed despotic leadership (i.e., tendencies toward authoritarian and dominant behavior in pursuit of self-interest, self-aggrandizement, and exploitation of others) and its negative effects. They show that negative forms of leadership can also negatively affects employees’ personal lives, homes and families.

Birgit Schyns and colleagues in their article in Frontiers of Psychology extended the perspective from dark-side leader behaviors to follower perceptions and attributions of these behaviors. Comparing different levels of abusive behavior (constructive leadership, laissez-faire leadership, mild to strong abuse), they analyzed follower perceptions of abusive supervision and follower behaviors. Relationships between abusive supervision perceptions and outcome variables (loyalty, turnover, and voice) were largely negatively affected by abusive leadership.

The Interplay Between Traits of Leader and Follower

Looking at leader narcissism, in their article in Frontiers of Psychology, Barbara Nevicka and colleagues analyzed the interface between self-absorbed, entitled narcissistic leaders and insecure followers, who make “easy targets” for narcissists. The authors found that studies. followers with low self-esteem and low core self-evaluations perceived narcissistic leaders as more abusive than those with high self-esteem or high core self-evaluations. Abusive supervision perceptions in turn related to lower follower performance and higher experiences of burnout, pointing to risks of leader narcissism for vulnerable followers.

Dick P.H. Barelds and colleagues also studied followers’ self-esteem, in their article in Frontiers of Psychology, in terms of how it affected the relationship between leaders’ psychopathy and their self-serving behaviors. They found that leader psychopathy was positively related to leader self-serving behaviors, but only when their followers had low rather than high self-esteem.

However, not only leaders’ dark-side traits pose risks to organizations; followers’ dark-side traits may do the same. Frank D. Belschak and collegues studied ethical leadership as a potential remedy for negative behaviors of Machiavellian followers and published their results in Frontiers of Psychology . They found followers with high Machiavellianism are goal-driven to the extent that they use all possible means to achieve desired ends. Machiavellianism predicted reduced helping behavior and increased knowledge hiding and emotional manipulation, but only when ethical leadership was low. That is, ethical leadership served as a buffer of the negative outcomes of dark-side followership.


Future research should add to the understanding of how leaders, followers, their relationships and the context interact within the dynamic of dark sides in organizations. Moreover, future research can look into how negative leadership affects different life spheres of the followers, as well as of the leaders themselves.

Be sure to read my book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders,



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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others