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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

A complete guide to the dark triad: understand, recognize, and cope with the darkest side of leadership - Part 1 of 2

I couldn’t find the energy and will to work. I locked myself in my cabin (a room on a ship) and barely ate for a few days. I mostly listen to music to keep my mind busy and not think about what I was going through. When I was alone, I cried a lot. I was utterly unable to see a solution, an escape. I remember vividly the sense of pain, desperation, loneliness, and self-doubt. While writing this, almost 20 years later, I still feel emotional, and I must remind myself who I am and what I have become to push that latent sense of despair away.

The cause of this was an episode – one of many, but of greater magnitude – with my boss. That day, he publicly humiliated me for a mistake I had made (I am still not sure of that part, but I acknowledge I could be biased).

I have learned that leadership has its dark side and can be pitch dark, well beyond the typical definition of toxic leadership. If you are willing and ready to dive into this rabbit hole, let's explore it together.

A dimly lit office with a shadowy figure sitting behind a large, imposing desk. The figure has a stern, calculating expression, exuding a sense of evil power. It symbolizes how leadership has its dark side and can be pitch dark
Leadership has its dark side and can be pitch dark

In 2002, psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin M. Williams pinpointed a set of three personality types that are widely acknowledged as dysfunctional: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Let’s define these aspects:

  • Narcissism: "Narcissism is an eclipse of the soul," John Bradshaw insightfully observed. It is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. Individuals displaying narcissism often exhibit grandiosity, a preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love, and believe they are special and unique, deserving of admiration. This sense of superiority and entitlement can lead to exploitative behavior and an expectation of special treatment. Despite their appearance of confidence and self-assuredness, their self-esteem may be fragile and dependent on external validation. They may also exploit or take advantage of others to achieve their goals and react with anger or contempt when they face criticism or rejection.

  • Machiavellianism: named after the Italian Renaissance diplomat and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, author of the book “The Prince”, Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by a manipulative, deceitful, and exploitative approach to interpersonal relationships. Individuals high in Machiavellianism are typically focused on their interests, often at the expense of others. They may employ cunning tactics, strategic calculation, and a pragmatic, emotionally detached approach to gain power, control, or personal gain. They tend to have a cynical view of human nature and may believe that ends justify the means, regardless of the ethical implications. For example, they may also use flattery, lies, or threats to influence or control others and switch their loyalties or opinions depending on the situation. Dale Carnegie highlighted the perils of such behavior in his classic, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," warning of the inherent dangers of manipulation and insincerity.

  • Psychopathy: "Psychopaths are social predators, and like all predators, they are looking for feeding grounds. Wherever you get people who are in a vulnerable position... that's where you find psychopaths," Dr. Robert Hare famously noted. Psychopathy is marked by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, boldness, and a propensity for thrill-seeking and impulsive actions. This trait is characterized by a lack of emotional depth, a callous unconcern for the feelings of others, and often a disregard for social norms and the rights of individuals. Individuals displaying psychopathy typically have superficial charm and can be articulate and seemingly confident. However, this exterior often masks a more manipulative, selfish, and sometimes aggressive interior. They may engage in risky or unethical behaviors without considering the consequences for themselves or others, showing little to no remorse. Psychopaths often have a low tolerance for boredom and frustration, exhibiting antisocial or criminal behavior, such as violence, aggression, or fraud. They may also be irresponsible, unreliable, or parasitic and blame others for their problems or failures.

The combination of these three traits in a person is called the Dark Triad. When discussing people with Dark Triad characteristics, we refer to nonpathological levels of any components. For brevity, we’ll use the term “Dark Leaders” when talking about individuals in leadership positions presenting levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, as described above.

To make things worse, this already unpleasant profile is often associated with another personality characteristic: sadism, which is the pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others. For this reason, some sources indicate it as the Dark Tetrad.

I had the miserable experience of working with people who, I suspect, presented the Dark Triad characteristics, some of whom have reached the top of their career ladder. The event I have briefly described at the beginning of this article is the perfect example of what I am talking about.

A hyper-realistic image depicting a man in a business suit carefully balancing atop a large house of cards. The house of cards is placed on a polished, spacious office desk, emphasizing the precariousness of the situation. The office is well-lit, modern, and exudes an air of professionalism and high stakes, contrasting with the fragile structure of the house of cards. The man appears focused and cautious, symbolizing the delicate balance required in high-pressure leadership positions.
"Dark Leaders" success is built upon a house of cards

World history is full of examples of potential Dark Leaders who have reached positions of incredible power. Think about Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Napoleon, and more. Their success is due to a combination of attributes and behaviors that can be advantageous, especially in highly competitive environments.

  • Confidence and Charisma (Narcissism): Narcissists often exude confidence and charisma, which can be persuasive in leadership roles. Their self-assuredness can be mistaken for competence and leadership potential, helping them ascend the career ladder.

  • Strategic Manipulation (Machiavellianism): Individuals high in Machiavellianism are adept at manipulation and strategic thinking. They can be skilled at navigating corporate politics, influencing others, and advancing their interests, often at the expense of ethical considerations.

  • Risk-Taking (Psychopathy): Those with psychopathic traits may be more willing to take significant risks, which can lead to breakthroughs or high-reward situations. Their fearlessness in decision-making can be advantageous in entrepreneurial or high-stakes business environments.

  • Decisiveness: People with these traits often exhibit decisiveness, which can be seen as a strength, especially in leadership roles where quick and firm decision-making is required.

  • Focus on Achievement: Dark Triad traits often include a strong drive for achievement and recognition. This ambition can propel individuals up the career ladder as they relentlessly pursue their goals.

  • Lack of Empathy: While generally considered a negative trait, a lack of empathy can sometimes help one make tough business decisions without being hindered by emotional considerations.

  • Resilience to Stress: Individuals with these traits may have a higher stress tolerance, allowing them to operate effectively in high-pressure environments.

In reality, their success is built upon a house of cards. Once again, what I have learned through direct experiences is that leaders with pronounced Dark Triad traits can significantly impact organizational health and employee well-being:

  • Toxic Organizational Culture: Their manipulative, self-absorbed, and often unethical conduct can foster a toxic work environment characterized by fear, stress, and low morale. The high turnover rate and the number of quiet quitters can effectively measure the effect.

  • Questionable Ethical Practices: Their focus on personal gain may lead to unethical or legally questionable business practices, potentially jeopardizing the organization's reputation and longevity.

  • Impaired Collaboration, Initiative, and Trust: The lack of empathy, manipulative tendencies, and the need to control everything can erode trust and initiative, thus hindering effective team collaboration and communication.

  • Unsustainable Success: While their boldness and risk-taking might yield short-term gains, these leaders often neglect the long-term sustainability and ethical foundations of their actions. Furthermore, an organization built upon a leader with Dark Triad traits often does not survive long once the leader is removed from the equation.

Unfortunately, Dark Leaders are not rare. There are no reliable statistics to assess the percentage of Dark Leaders, but it's generally acknowledged that the prevalence of Dark Triad traits in leadership roles can be significant.

It's also essential to add that not all leaders with these traits will exhibit dysfunctional or destructive behavior. The impact of these traits can depend on various factors, including the individual's level of self-awareness (a word often repeated in my blog, for a good reason!), the presence of other positive personality traits, and the specific demands and culture of the organizational environment.

Next week, we will explore the best strategies for coping with Dark Leaders.

In the meantime, if you want to read some scientific articles on the Dark Triad, here are a few links I have used for this article:

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