Leading From the Dark Side: 4 Dangerous Leadership Styles

Darth Vader

“Luke, Stay Away from the Dark Side . . .”

Have you heard of these leaders:

Adolph Hitler,  Jim Jones,  Thomas Jefferson,  Donald Rumsfeld, or  Robert E. Lee?

Some list, right?  The common denominator is something basic: it’s what happens when some of the qualities necessary to good leadership harden, or morph into something else: the “Dark Side” of leadership.

If we can find these tendencies in ourselves, we may be able to avoid them; if we see them in others, perhaps we can coach them away from the cliff’s edge.

4 Dangerous Leadership Styles

The EGO Danger

Thomas JeffersonThis is the most common danger that strong leaders wrestle with.  First, it’s primarily the ego that makes strong leaders “strong”.  By their nature, these leaders have vision, drive, ambition and competitiveness in abundance.

And as a result, these leaders are more naturally lured by the siren call of pride and “self-ness.”

Because they usually see the outline of issues early, many strong leaders believe they’re the smartest guy in the room, and feel the need to demonstrate that superiority.  The demonstration may come in the form of talking down to people, snapping at subordinates, scornfully dismissing arguments or suggestions, or going after their perceived “smart guy” competitors.

I believe this was the main personal component – on each side – in the bitter (and ultimately fatal) Thomas Jefferson/Alexander Hamilton feud.

This is the most dangerous threat to any strong leader’s success.

Ego can drive leaders into isolation, where the timing and the information delivered is ruthlessly controlled and filtered.  It’s where free thinkers and blunt speakers quickly feel (and become) out of place.

The organization itself runs the risk of percolating into self-deluded paranoia at the top, accompanied by sycophantic striving to please at all costs in the middle, while a toxic tsunami of apathy, angst, and anger threatens to crumble the structure from below.


Adolf HitlerHave you ever been around someone who must always have their own way?  And until they get it they keep grinding, and shifting the discussion back until others are tired of hearing about it.  It becomes far easier to do it their way, even when you suspect it’s wrong.

Plus, you feel you’re in the middle of a hidden agenda that you can’t seem to grasp, let alone understand.

Does this leader make demands that regular people wouldn’t: demands on your time, attention, independence, family or integrity?  And do they make these demands without a flinch, like you somehow owe it to them?

Often these leaders will tell themselves – and others – that their demands are strictly “for the good of the organization”, but in reality they’re more often about feeding the leader’s personal demons.

  • What is happening to the organization?
  • Are cracks starting to appear?
  • Don’t believe it?
  • It can’t be happening where you are?

Really? Well ask the people at Enron, or Germany circa 1933-35, or Jonestown in 1978.


Donald RumsfeldThis is the one that says “If you’re not with me 100%, then you’re against me.”  This danger produces a sort of “echo chamber” affect.  There’s only one approach, one philosophy, and one answer that’s approved and acceptable.

I believe this was Donald Rumsfeld’s Achilles Heel at the Pentagon.

From comments made by a friend of mine who was a major general at the time Rumsfeld came in, the Secretary was there to “revolutionize the military” (an admirable goal), but he would brook no debate.

He had done immense preparation, enlisted the best minds in developing this strategy, and he knew – going in – exactly the direction he was taking.  The civilian side was going to force the military’s “old bulls” to line up.  It was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead . . . and sink any ships that get in the way!

The biggest danger here?  Real experts withhold insightful, contrary opinions.  The highest profile, most accomplished people see that it’s becoming impossible to stay, so they get out prematurely.

  • Perspective is lost.
  • Debate is stilted, stunted, and finally killed.
  • “Yes, sir,” becomes the only acceptable response.

Reactions may include leaking information to the press, the authorities, or the boss’s influential enemies.

You name it, and it’s likely to happen in “Exclusivity” organizations undergoing purges.


Robert E. LeeThis is the danger that comes when a leader has been immensely successful, and has so refined his or her dominant style that it becomes their exclusive modus operandi.  Robert E. Lee is our example here.   Lee was the picture of good manners, audacity, integrity, and trust.

And because his character was so strong, and so positive, he naturally ascribed his abilities and values to other people.

This is why he was so comfortable working with Stonewall Jackson, who was equally driven, fanatically honest and strategically gifted.  It was less successful with some of Lee’s other lieutenants, notably James Longstreet and A.P. Hill.

However, with someone so fundamentally different from Lee, as Jeb Stuart was, this approach brought disaster, particularly during the approach march to Gettysburg in June, 1863.

The simple fact was that Lee was uncomfortable giving blunt, direct orders to his top deputies.

His failure to do so – especially as less able commanders took the place of fallen predecessors – resulted in a dramatically less agile Army of Northern Virginia.  Finely crafted victories, like those at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville, gave way to brutal slugfests like Cold Harbor and the Wilderness.

Human nature being what it is, we don’t change until we must.

Before It’s Too Late

For a leader who has moved from success to success, it’s often too late, with thousands of careers (or lives) or perhaps billions of dollars riding on the failure, before they realize that the behavior which first brought them to the dance is no longer paying the band.

At that point pride, habit and momentum make it nearly impossible to make the necessary adjustments.  Unfortunately, everyone in the organization – often thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, or more – suffers the consequences of the leader’s failures.

So, before it is too late, leaders and people within organizations need to periodically take inventory of their personal leadership styles and those around and open up lines of healthy communication to correct poor behaviors. They need to do this becasue the very health of the organization is at stake.

So, what side of the leadership spectrum are you on? Are you, your boss, or someone you know leading from the “Dark Side,” suffering from one of the four dangerous styles? If so, what can you do to adjust your style and learn to be a better leader? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Bookmark Leading From the Dark Side: 4 Dangerous Leadership Styles

Scott Crandall
is Principal of Trinity-Lincoln Consulting
He specializes in Leadership, Coaching, Training and Project Consulting
EmailLinkedInWeb | Skype: scrandall31 | (864) 787-108

Image Sources: smartphonewallpaper.comimperialkingdom.net, image1.findagrave.com, wired.com, karchnerwesternart.com

Enhanced by Zemanta

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Glain Roberts-McCabe on June 3, 2011 at 7:39 am

    Love how you’ve identified these four styles (traps) and I’m sure there are probably more. I do think that power corrupts, even when you go into leadership positions with your eyes wide open. Your post makes me wonder how leaders, who may be surrounded by people telling them how “right” they are, can balance it out with strong “red flag” wavers. I wonder what the tipping point is between the “right” side and the “dark” side? Something I’m going to think more about. Thanks!

  2. Scott Crandall on June 3, 2011 at 8:52 am

    There are many more “dark side” behaviors — I just tried to put them into four general groups.

    I think it’s always critical to distinguish between “strong” leadership, and “good” leadership. Thanks for commenting!

    • Jane Lawson on June 8, 2011 at 10:35 pm

      Great behavioral science observations here, Scott. Is this from your study of Axiology? I love the way you weave in the “dark side” of certain leadership styles. I have had some good success coaching clients to modify/adapt/learn new skills to over-come the Ego driven and the Nice Guy behaviors. However, in my experience and observation, the other two, manipulation and exclusivity, while still alive and lurking beneath the surface in certain individuals, are rarely tolerated by the general population for very long in our society, our organizations, even our political system. AKA the recent uprisinging in Tunisa, then Egypt. I like to believe that the Luke Skywalkers of the world will eventually prevail.

  3. Peter Demarest on June 23, 2011 at 11:35 am

    What these leaders from the dark side can do to make powerful and positive changes, is three things:
    1. Get educated about the dynamics of maximum value generation (there is a science to it).
    2. Raise their level of mindfulness regarding how they are thinking.
    3. Start shifting away form a self-centric approach (which the dark side is all about) and start thinking value-centrically and in terms of what we call “The Central Question” –

    “What choice can I make and action can I take, in this moment, to create the greatest net value?”