Insights on the shadow side of leadership  

a conversation with Manfred Kets de Vries and Salem Samhoud

Leaders have to manage their dark side and reduce the likelihood of engaging in dysfunctional behaviors that could negatively impact their organization and the people around them. Leadership experts Manfred Kets de Vries and Salem Samhoud shared their perspectives on dysfunctional leadership behaviour during the first edition of a new series of Unusual Perspectives on Leadership. This article summarizes their perspectives in quotes. 

“The moment you become a leader, you become surrounded by liars.” 

As a leader, you have to realize how scary you can be and therefore you need to strengthen your listening skills. The moment you are in a leadership position it becomes essential to listen to what’s not being said. Actively invite people to share their ideas, embrace vulnerability and accept that it’s okay not to have all the answers. This allows for a more authentic connection with your team.

Leaders often forget that people act differently to people higher in the hierarchy. As a leader you might think that you are approachable and that you have open relationships with your employees, but the fact is that people perceive you different. 

The moment you become the business man or woman of the year: be aware of your own narcistic tendencies and realize that your life might turn into an echo chamber where everybody tries to please you.

For leaders it is essential to question your list of trusted advisors and connect with the less obvious people around you. Surround yourself with a diverse group of people, including both older and younger individuals, to keep your mind fresh and open to new ideas. 

And: be aware of the allure of power, money, and greed, and avoid getting trapped in a cycle of always wanting more. Recognize the addictive nature of these pursuits and stay grounded in your values.

“Narcissists, bipolars and psychopaths are present in the CEO world”

There are many CEO’s who display dysfunctional behaviours, which often include elements of narcissism, bipolarity and even psychopaths. 

Research shows the level of psychopaths in society to be around 1%, but on senior leadership level this number goes up to 5%. Psychopaths are strong in managing upwards but horrible downwards. 

And then you also have the bipolars. They can come across strong, energetic, positive, but you don’t know and hardly even notice what’s really happening inside and how that plays out in day to day work.  

For leaders it is key to continuously reflect on their own dysfunctional behavior. And recognize and manage the potential for transference in relationships with your team members. Be mindful of how your own background and experiences might influence your interactions with others.

“When you are a CEO: do what’s important and what you like!”  

Being a leader asks for high performance which can only be sustained if you focus on your qualities,  the things that are really important and that you like to do. Therefore leaders should be aware of this and stop doing what they don’t like and what is not important. Manfred’s advice: ‘get yourself a good team and trust them. Otherwise: you have no life. 

In work and life there are area’s that we don’t like and are not important. What are you doing there? Buzz off, never go there. The area’s we like, but that are not important for the business are good for the soul. This is that space where the best ideas come from. The area’s that we don’t like, but are important: give it to somebody else, to the team you trust, as we will never be good at it. Where all of us can really add value are the area’s we like an which are important. Stay here and spend more of our time in this area’s! Choose happiness and prioritize your well-being as a leader, remembering that you can’t effectively lead others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

“Narcistic leaders are great storytellers”

While we are not suggesting to adopt the negative behaviors of narcissistic leaders, lessons can be learned from their storytelling techniques to engage and inspire. Narcistic leaders often understand the power of simple stories and clear messaging. Leaders should focus on crafting straightforward narratives that resonate with their audience while maintaining their integrity and avoiding narcissistic tendencies. Clarity and repetition are key in this type of communication.

“Micromanagement is a typical dysfunctional shadow side of leadership”

Leadership is stimulating people to make decisions themselves instead of micro-managing. Manfred quotes a leader who said: ‘The best thing you can do in my company is to make the right decision. The second best you can do is make the wrong decision. But I’ll fire you when you make no decision at all.’  

“Don’t be a hungry consultant.” 

When working with leaders there is the risk of being the ‘hungry consultant’ who is not telling the truth anymore. Make sure you are not just telling what other people want to hear, be honest and give push back.