6 Reasons To Move Toward A Realistic View Of Leadership

by | Jan 22, 2017 | Inspiration

Perfect Sch’merfect!

The pressure to be an exceptional, virtuous, and inspirational leader or simply stated – “the perfect leader” can be equated to the amount of pressure on western women to be a size zero with no wrinkles. It is relentless, and often time unrealistic.

~ Marderé Birkill & Elizabeth Benson



Modern leadership gurus promote good leadership and propose that leadership can be learned.

A leader is a person of competence and good character, and the intention is to do good by others. One of the earliest writings about leadership in a positive context was by James McGregor Burns in a seminal work “Leadership”, 1978. The wording with which Burns defined the concepts of leaders and leadership gave birth to an ever escalating drive to perfect leadership and an ever-growing leadership industry. Burns stated “Leadership over human beings is exercised when persons with certain motives and purposes mobilize…. resources so as to arouse, engage, and satisfy the motives of followers.”

The definition excludes those who exercise power over people but fail to engage, arouse and satisfy the motives of followers. Those who obliterate people and use them as objects with which to achieve an end, are power wielders and not leaders.

1. There is a dark side

Leaders have not always been assumed to be virtuous icons. Historically leadership studies were more focused on ways in which to contain followers. It was understood that people need to be contained and guided in whichever way is deemed to be effective at the time. Machiavelli, being one the most famous ancient authors on leadership had a very pragmatic approach to authoritarian leadership. It was assumed that leaders would exert power in some way shape of form, only a weak leader will refuse to do that. To quote the unspeakable “Well-used cruelty (if one can speak well of evil) one may call those atrocities that are committed at a stroke, in order to secure one’s power, and are then not repeated, rather every effort is made to ensure one’s subjects benefit in the long run…” (Machiavelli, 1532) The dark side of leadership is not a historical event.There are very dark leaders thriving in the world today. To name a few, we have Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma. They are however well and thriving in public and private business today. In our current research on the effects of toxic leadership, nine out of ten interviewees light up with the following statement: “Holy moly, do I have a story for you!”

2.  The truth about leadership is that there is black and white

There are iconic leaders, and there are toxic leaders. And there are way more than 50 shades of grey in between. Some people lead because they have the title or power to exert force or fear, and others have a magnetism that qualifies them as natural leaders wherever they go, and in any situation. The leaders that fall permanently into the dark side of grey are real and are more prevalent than we wish to acknowledge in leadership studies. Bad news sells newspapers but not leadership ideologies. Recent studies have however shown that 33% of North American leaders are toxic. (Veldman, 2016). If you assume that leadership follows a standard bell curve, 60 % of leaders that grey area. They will be ranging from those with good intentions and fleeting dark moments to those with dark plans and momentary virtuous moments. I believe it would be generous to assume that more than 15% of leaders fall in the iconic range. That leaves more than 50% of leaders in the grey region.

3.  Focus broader than the Utopian state of leadership

As with most scientific studies, you have to have as much knowledge about both ends of the spectrum, and all that falls in between to build a comprehensive view of the ideal and how to get there. In medicine for instance, if we only studied perfect health, and wrote about perfect health, disease identification, cure and prevention would never have come up, and many of us would be history before our time. This may be an extreme example, but dark leadership exists in context, as does ideal leadership. Studying dark leadership as much as positive leadership will equip consultants and organizations to effectively diagnose and cure. Knowing what to look for, how to prevent and cure will bring about healthier organizations. ( Which by the way will impact out spending our healthcare, but that is for another article.)

4.  Most leaders are coping, rather than leading

Leaders today face increased pressures in addition to the romance with leadership idealists. If you search best leadership books of 2016, they are all focused on dealing with overwhelm. Forbes top ten for 2016 included titles such as: “To Have a Good Day” by Webb, The Happiness Track Seppala; Grit, Duckworth; The Confidence Game Konnikova; Deep Work Newport Sprint Knapp Zeratsky, Kowitz; Superbosses by Sydney Finkelstein. The principal theme is COPING. A leader in executive coaching in the United States stated, that one his of professors indicated that executive life consists of 2 % doing what you are taught in business school, 8% planning to do what you are taught in business school and 90% of the time just coping with your job. That would never sell an MBA to anyone. Or a C-suite job.

5.  Every leader has a moment

In a current research project investigating the impact of toxic leadership on organizations, it became apparent that all leaders are guilty of aspects of less virtuous moments in their leadership journey. A button gets pushed, patience lost, commitments not followed through, crucial points missed in a decision – things go wrong, and you happen to show your grizzly side. All human leaders will at some point move over to the dark side of leadership albeit momentarily to change an outcome and force a new direction. Or sometimes, in a heated moment, give the most eloquent speech that will be regretted for the rest of your life..

6.  An organizational environment can tolerate and even foster toxicity

As with cancer, virus or bacteria, toxic leadership has an environment that supports it. The more we know about that environment, how to control or ideally prevent it, the more attainable the virtuous side of leadership will become. And we may be postulating here way beyond the realms of this article, but the rhetoric around leadership may move back to elements of leadership rather than coping. We have to accept that our external environment is volatile and will probably become more so. Change, the pace of change and its implications for leadership have to be seen as a given. Positive leadership is an ideal that we must believe most leaders are striving towards, that is why books and courses on leadership is a multi-million dollar business. In spite of all that, dark and toxic leadership is thriving, 33% in black, and 50+ % in shades of grey. Toxic leadership exists large in two categories as per Margaret Kellerman, inept or corrupt; alternatively, incompetent or dysfunctional. There is no evidence that a toxic leader cannot be both incompetent and dysfunctional, though. The point is that we can cure incompetent with training, and prevent dysfunctional with screening if we know the symptoms. The imperative is to vigorously pursue knowledge and a widely acknowledged awareness of the symptoms and behaviors that emanate into toxicity. Furthermore, we need to have a keen grip on the characteristics of an environment that will foster toxicity and one that will prevent toxicity.

Contact us now for a free consultation
Marderé Birkill, BA, MBL, CEC
CEO & Founder
Sage & Summit Consulting
(780) 404-7610
Call Now Button