Dysfunctional Leadership - Dysfunctional Organizations

It stands to reason that dysfunctional leaders would create dysfunctional organizations. Yet, as Professor Manfred Kets de Vries suggests, there is little research on the dark side of leaders, the “Darth Vader” aspect that is at the core of so many organizational downfalls. In this Working Paper, he looks at specific personality dysfunctions alongside organizational dysfunctions, illustrating how the two, more often than not, are inextricably linked.

by Manfred Kets de Vries
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Leaders do not get to where they are out of pure chance. There are certain personality traits that make one stand out and encourage others to follow. Yet many of these traits, such as self-aggrandisement and a sense of entitlement, thrive on narcissism, self-deceit, and the abuse of power. In this Working Paper, Manfred Kets de Vries, the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chaired Clinical Professor of Leadership Development, looks at the psychopathology of leadership and concludes that that combination of neurotic personality and personal power can create social and business disasters.

He begins the paper with a discussion of the psychological pressures of leadership:<UL>

<LI><i>Loneliness of command</i> Once a man or woman reaches a top position in an organization, stress and frustration often develop, as old relationships and support networks change and former colleagues become distant.

<LI><i>Addiction to power</i> The fear of losing what has been so difficult to gain—a top leadership position—sometimes encourages people to engage in malevolent acts.

<LI><i>Fear of envy</i> Some people find being the subject of envy very disturbing. That fear can reach the point where dysfunctional self-destructive behavior “snatches defeat out of the jaws of victory.”

<LI><i>The experience of “What now?”</i> After achieving a lifetime’s ambition, leaders sometimes suffer from a sense of depression, feeling that they have little left to strive for.


The problem does not stem so much from the pressures themselves, says Kets de Vries, but <i>how</i> a leader manages these pressures. Often leaders hesitate to look inside themselves, and when they do, they refuse to acknowledge their weaknesses; they are unwilling to face up to how their defensive structures and character traits can negatively affect their organizations. They are all too quick to deny that these pressures can contribute to dysfunctional behavior and decisions.

While these behaviours manifest themselves in the here and now, says Kets de Vries, they are in fact linked to our earliest experiences as infants.

“How the major caretakers react to the child’s struggle to deal with the paradoxical quandary of infancy—how to resolve the tension between childhood helplessness and the ‘grandiose sense of self’ found in almost all children—is paramount to the child’s psychological health,” he explains. “The resolution of that tension is what determines a person’s feelings of potency versus impotency. Inadequate resolution often produces feelings of rage, a desire for vengeance, and a hunger for personal power. If that hunger is not properly resolved in the various stages of childhood, it may be acted out in highly destructive ways in adulthood.”

Kets de Vries has traced these behaviours to five types of neurotic organizations: dramatic/cyclothymic, suspicious, detached, depressive, and compulsive. He says that each of the five patterns has strengths as well as weaknesses. In many cases a solid strength (for example, a leader’s careful attention to the actions of rivals) becomes a weakness over time (as when healthy wariness becomes unmitigated suspicion), polluting the atmosphere of the organization. When that happens, change is needed if the organization is going to survive.

Given that leadership styles are deeply rooted in history and personality, change never comes easily. A first step, says Kets de Vries, is recognition of the danger signs of dysfunctional leadership and dysfunctional organizations. Leaders must be willing to look within themselves and make an honest appraisal. If they cannot do that, says Kets de Vries, they would do well to ask for help from trained outsiders, who can offer guidance in this process.


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