The dark side of leadership

The dark side of leadership

Nowadays, we often hear of government leaders who are incompetent and who use their position of leadership for their self-interest: they are corrupt, despotic, immoral, power-hungry, materialistic, abusive, and who are more concerned about their image or status. This can be found also in the police and military organization as well as the corporate world. Even some leaders of the Church may be guilty of this. The great temptation of those having authority is to “feel powerful and almost like God”—that one is above the law and can do anything he likes. Many of the abuses may be caused by the failure to recognize and overcome the dark side. There is a dark side of leadership which has to be brought out into the open, into the light. The dark side which is often toxic and destructive brings out the worst version of the self.

From a psychological perspective, the dark side is often associated with personality disorder and abnormal behavior which has roots in the unconscious. Among the manifestations are narcissism, insecurity, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsions, despotic behavior, aggression, uncontrolled anger or intermittent explosive disorder, addictive behavior, sexual abuse, etc. More often, the underlying causes of such disorder is complex—some involving childhood psychological trauma, abuse, rejection, etc. Christian tradition often associates the manifestation of the dark side with the so-called seven deadly sins or cardinal sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Every human being, including priests, are prone to these “capital vices.” The dark side is associated with the four cravings or basic temptations that try to dominate the life of each human being, especially those in leadership position: (1) the craving for sensual pleasure; (2) the craving for material possession; (3) the craving for power and influence, (4) the craving for popularity, fame and glory.

One basic temptation for a leader is to gratify one’s sensual desire. The leader has at his disposal whatever he wants and he can easily indulge in addictive behavior—whether it be food, alcohol, gambling, drugs or sex. The leader can spend a lot of time in the casino, cockfighting arena or the mahjong table. In order to deal with the pain—whether physical or psychological—he can become a drug addict (which is a form self-medication). Another temptation is to indulge in illicit sexual behavior/misconduct (whether heterosexual or homosexual)—keeping a mistress/or concubine, including abuse of minors.

A leader has access to huge amount of money. The big temptation is to use his position to accumulate wealth and material possessions. The dark side of leadership becomes evident when this becomes his main motivation. His heart is full of greed and avarice. He needs more to maintain a luxurious lifestyle—a palatial home, the latest fleet of cars, clothes, gadgets, etc. This is also necessary to maintain his vices and addiction – to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or in seducing minors.

For many politicians and government officials, a leadership position becomes a source for accumulating wealth and material possessions. This is also a means for gaining and maintaining political power. This is often associated with patronage politics. No wonder, many will run for office—as local government officials (barangay leaders, mayors, governors), as representatives and senators, as presidents. There is money in public office and government bureaucracy. Running for office requires huge amount (campaign staff, advertisement, vote-buying, etc.) and once in office, he needs to recoup his expenses and generate funds for re-election. The temptation of wealth and material possessions can also lead many police and military personnel to engage in criminal activities (kidnapping, hold-up, extortion, drug-pushing, gambling, etc.). The temptation of wealth is the main source of corruption in the government. It is like cancer that metastasize or spread in all levels—from the highest to the lowest.

When a person occupies a position of authority and leadership, he often feels powerful. Traditionally, this power is associated with the capacity to impose his will and dominate others. He makes decisions and expects to be obeyed. He can threaten and coerce others to do his bidding, to demand respect and even fear. He can even have the power of life and death over others. He can get away with murder. This power comes with perks and privileges. He has at his disposal the wealth and resources that comes with the office. Power tends to be aphrodisiac. Sexual abuse can be an assertion of power. He thinks he is the law, that he is above the law. This is the biggest and most destructive temptation of leadership—the drive for power. How to come to power, how to exercise power and how to perpetuate himself in power. When this becomes the dominant motivating force, the dark side of leadership is fully manifested. Lord Acton’s popular dictum is correct: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A person who is narcissistic and lacks a sense of remorse and guilt and who thinks of himself as god is most dangerous when he is in a leadership position.

The leader is often placed in the limelight. He is the focus or center of attention—especially from followers and the media. Honor, fame, popularity and prestige tend to accompany the position of authority and leadership. The dark side is evident when seeking fame and being conscious of one’s image become the underlying motive of the leader’s behavior and decisions. He is full of vanity. This can also be accompanied by a sense of entitlement and the expectation of being given a VIP treatment.

The biggest temptation that a leader faces is to use his position as means for satisfying these drives, to allow himself to be dominated by one or all of these drives. The account of the temptation in the desert was symbolic of Jesus’ struggle and rejection against this type of leadership—motivated primarily by self-gratification, wealth, power and privilege.

Thus, everyone occupying leadership positions are subject to one or more of these diabolical temptations. This is part of the fallen, sinful nature of human beings. At the core of all these is selfishness, greed and pride. The dark side is associated with ignoring or breaking God’s commandment and falling into sin. When he does this, the leader makes himself a god – failing to recognize that he is only a creature and there is someone greater than himself to whom he is accountable. He thinks that he is above the law and does not have to follow or observe the law – whether it be the divine law or the laws of society. He can easily lie, cheat, steal or use coercion or violence to get what he wants—whether it be sensual pleasure, wealth, power or fame. He does not respect the dignity and rights of others. He does not listen to his conscience or has a dull conscience. He lacks moral compass and becomes immoral. Sexual misconduct or abuse come easy. For him, there is nothing wrong with cursing others or even God. He lacks a sense of remorse and guilt. He becomes cruel and corrupt. Having a hardened heart, he does not care if others suffer as a consequence of his acts and decisions. All he cares about is himself.

The dark side of leadership is responsible the reign of evil in Philippine society—for the corruption, violence, injustice, poverty, inequality, tyranny, violation of human rights, extrajudicial killings and the destruction of the environment. When this dark side dominates, the leader instead of being servant-leaders becomes self-serving incapable of bringing justice, peace, progress and genuine change.