Lessons Learned From Dark Leadership Theories

It is possible to suggest that, when hearing about leaders, most people think of such persons’ positive features and characteristics. However, as shown in world history and by the example of numerous unsuccessful organizations, there is also the dark side of leadership. Thus, not all leaders only possess good qualities; some are too egoistic, narcissistic, impulsive, sociopathic, or ambitious and cannot lead their company or country in the best way (Braun et al., 2018). While there are still gaps in the research about dark leadership, there are many representatives of this phenomenon, and many concepts and lessons learned can be quite interesting to study.

Thoughts on Dark Leadership

Approximately thirty years ago, the term ‘dark leadership’ appeared in the academic literature. Some theories on this concept are discussed by Smith and Hasselfeld (2013) in their article. Overall, I may say that the research on dark leadership is impressive, and there are different views on this phenomenon. For example, some academics stated that the cause was in the abuse and pitfalls of charisma: “charismatic leaders often produced dramatic results … and spectacular failures” (Smith & Hasselfeld, 2013, p. 4). Further, while some researchers made lists of positive qualities leaders needed to develop not to become dark, others believed that the dark side of leadership was “caused by possessing undesirable qualities rather than in lacking desirable ones” (Smith & Hasselfeld, 2013, p. 6). Finally, nowadays, three main traits are believed to compose such a leader: “narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism” (Fouts, 2020, para. 2). In other words, instead of influencing, committing, and persuading, they manipulate, coerce, and dominate.

In my opinion, all theoretical ideas regarding the nature of dark leadership deserve to be researched and analyzed: each of them may, to some extent, be right about this concept. I find this topic to be quite interesting, and I am impressed by the number of various dark leadership theories., What is more, I consider the part of determining effective ways to combat it to be the most exciting (Braun et al., 2018). Leaders need to be aware of this phenomenon and the risks of becoming dark, so certain methods not allowing this to happen should be spread among the leaders of countries and organizations.

Some Leaders Cast Shadow Instead of Light

Further, it is essential to discuss the impact of leaders: while they are supposed to cast light on their employees, some cast a shadow. The former refers to the best sides of leadership – a person takes full responsibility for their actions and attitudes, manages ethical challenges, and uses their power only for good (Szatkowski, 2021). On the contrary, leaders who cast a shadow tend to “abuse power, mismanage information, fail to take accountability, mismanage resources, … and cast aside concerns as objections” (Szatkowski, 2021, para. 1). They also fail to adequately respond to criticism and address concerns.

Such a difference can be explained by the primary intent of various leaders. Thus, some want to altruistically make the world better, help others, lead their company or country to success, and enhance customers’ experiences so they cast light (Braun et al., 2018). At the same time, some are focused on their own profit, and when they receive power, it is impossible for them to control themselves – they begin to abuse it and never want to admit or show their own mistakes and accept the responsibility that comes with power. They cast a shadow, ruining the positive atmosphere around them.

Ethical Dilemmas I Have Encountered

During my working experience as a follower, I have encountered some ethical dilemmas. For example, I once witnessed a quarrel between my co-workers and realized that one of them was harassing the other. Since the employee who abused was a rather valuable and experienced member of our team, I faced the moral choice whether to report the incident or protect the team’s interests. While I did not want to get involved in the conflict, I still decided to let Human Resources know about the case so that they could help the victim. Another dilemma I faced was with our team’s manager not being qualified and responsible enough – he made a decision without considering the risks. Since we strongly disagreed with such a solution, our team filed a complaint for an investigation to be started, and I left the company soon.

Moral Choices Made by a Public Figure

Finally, some public figures are great examples of how leaders should cast light – their ethical decisions should guide dark leaders. For instance, several years ago, the new CEO of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, received an opportunity to prove his ability to be an ethical leader and make moral choices. According to Tangdall (2018), when two African Americans were discriminated in a Philadelphia Starbucks by local managers who asked the men to leave and then called the police, Kevin Johnson did not ignore such abuse of managerial authority. He fired the manager and published an apology statement, indicting his own focus on the creation of friendly, inclusive, and safe environments in all Starbucks cafes (Tangdall, 2018). Consequently, this is an example of the leader admitting his mistake, taking the responsibility to solve the negative situation, punishing the delinquent employee, and not willing to put up with discrimination. These are the characteristics that leaders need to have in order to cast light and never become dark.


To draw a conclusion, one may say that dark leadership will exist until people stop striving for power, not realizing that power comes with a serious responsibility. Only those individuals who have clear and altruistic intentions, as well as the ability to admit and correct their mistakes, deserve to be leaders. They are the ones who cast light and lead their countries and firms to success.


Braun, S., Kark, R., & Wisse, B. (2018). Editorial: Fifty shades of grey: Exploring the dark sides of leadership and followership. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(1877).

Fouts, M. (2020). The dark side of leadership: How to identify and steer clear of it when job hunting. Forbes.

Smith, D. R., & Hasselfeld, K. A. (2013). Dark side leadership: A history and organizing template. Business Administration Faculty Presentations, 89, 1-29.

Szatkowski, A. (2021). Why do leaders cast shadows instead of light? NYK Daily.

Tangdall, S. (2018). The CEO of Starbucks and the practice of ethical leadership. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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